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The Shared Focus of Denver's Green Valley Ranch a "Place to Exercise the Mind, Body and Soul"

Editor, Stephen Kelly

Photos, John Birkey, MLA, ASLA, Norris Design

Green Valley Ranch is a 42-acre public-private partnership of shared facilities that include the Omar D. Blair K-8 school, a gymnasium, rec center, plaza, amphitheater and fish-stocked lake. A park, sports fields (soccer and baseball), skatepark, playgrounds, shelters, gardens and trails are being built. An outdoor swimming pool for the rec center and a public library attached to the school library are future additions.

The master planning for Green Valley Ranch in Denver, Colo. from the beginning was based on designing shared-use facilities for separate parcels of land owned by Oakwood Homes, the Town Center Metropolitan District, Denver Parks and Recreation and Denver Public Schools.

A summer concert is underway at the bandstand (custom made by Sink Combs Dethlefs), with the site of the future park in the background. Ingrade pathway lighting (Sistemalux) highlights the sky-rocket junipers surrounding the stage and the Indian and feather reed grass behind the stage. A 3x3-foot granite swath is the lake edging.

John Birkey, MLA, ASLA, the landscape architect with Norris Design and principal-in-charge of the project, explains the planning started in quite a civilized manner, over coffee, between the developer and a city council member. It was the council member's idea to develop shared facilities, based on a school and rec center in Atlanta.

The Green Valley Ranch was based on the Prairie style and the landscape architects were asked to work in that vein. The 42-acre site for this public/private partnership includes a rec center and the Omar D. Blair K-8 school (attached at the gymnasium), a public plaza, lake, amphitheater and a 22-acre park (currently being planned). The gymnasium, playgrounds, park fields and future library will be shared by the school, the rec center and the public. This model maximizes use and efficiency of the facilities. Students use the rec center during the day when the majority of folks are working, and the public has use of the school facilities at night for classes and special interest studies.

The terraced amphitheater is an undulating course of Canadian blue fescue sod. The walk is a Fibonacci spiral. A Fibonacci spiral is designed as a series of connected quarter-circles drawn inside an array of squares with Fibonacci numbers for dimensions. The handrails, custom made, and the concrete stairs and cheek walls were fabricated by Goodland Construction. (visit to see exactly how a Fibonacci spiral is made).

Mr. Birkey explains the landscape architect's role involved planning and coordination of two architects, one for the school and one for the rec center, and overall leadership of the team, coordination of planning submittals and presentations to final working drawings. The school district, the department of parks and rec, the developer of the master planned community and the metropolitan district were all involved in numerous meetings. Mr. Birkey and Jared Carlon, MLA, also of Norris Design, the project manager, noted the biggest challenge was "getting all the jurisdictions to play in the same sandbox." (Ed. note: Barbara Faga, FASLA recently wrote a good book on this subject: See our review of Designing Public Consensus in the March issue or at This collaborative aspect helps keep the local residents happy with the way the facilities are shared and the growth of Green Valley Ranch. The landscape architect implemented a theme of "a place to exercise the mind, body and soul," focusing on the education, exercise and passive recreation triumvirate.

THE TWO PLAYGROUNDS: (by Kid/Play Builders, with Little Tikes play structures) have wood chip surfacing, with Canadian blue fescue sod areas and crusher fine paths for the playground by the lake. Other outdoor play features are the basketball court, the slide area and the straight-away track.

Omar D. Blair K-8

The Omar D. Blair K-8 school features a "learning landscape" that focuses on Colorado prairie history, geology and units of measurement.

The design for the new skatepark near the school includes a free standing rail, skatewave kicker and table, a street course and a flow course.

"Monoculture grasses are used in the completed portions and in the proposed park to accentuate this prairie history and vernacular," explains the landscape architect. Area geology is "taught" in the playgrounds through the presents of boulders from the three basic rock groups we all learn about in school??"igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary.

The timeline markers (contractor: Carol Enterprises) are sandblasted to a 1/8-inch depth and sealed with black lithocrome paint. A Georgia font is used. The timeline will be part of the Prairie History Walk.

Outdoor classrooms were planned along the prairie history walk, including a Native American council ring with inlaid colored glass depicting the four cardinal directions and the colors that represent each, as well as a pioneer cabin and an early settlers homestead.

Within the Prairie History interactive learning area will be the Mountain Range Vista, with the outlines of the Rocky Mountains sandblasted into concrete and sealed with black lithochrome paint.

There is also a prairie council ring in the school playground, similar to those designed by Jens Jensen, a pioneer of the Prairie Style in landscape architecture.

The Prairie History Walk, one of many shared site components, will be located in the park and used as an outdoor classroom for the students at K-8 Omar D. Blair DPS School. A Native American medicinal garden, a prairie garden, interpretive murals/signs and markers representing pivotal periods in Colorado history are included.

Fauna of the prairie are referenced in several ways, including painted tracks on the fire lane behind the school, which show the size of the prints and the distance of the stride for different prairie animals and their distant predecessors??"dinosaurs. This track is divided into units of feet, meters and yards to give students a better understanding of distances and units of measure. Cougar prints are proposed through the use of landforms in the grass areas near the park playground. A prairie rattlesnake metaphor also proposed through the use of large boulders, crusher fines and other indigenous plants and materials.

The Recreation Center is at the end of the plaza, with the architectural style purposely different from the school to increase awareness of the two different uses. The Rec Center will get an outdoor swimming pool if a bond issue passes.

Rec Center

The rec center is focused at the end of the plaza and the architectural style purposely different from the school to increase awareness of the two different uses, though incorporated on one site. People have expressed the desire for an outdoor swimming pool. If the city passes a bond issue, an outdoor swimming pool will likely be built in 2008.

A broad, colored concrete (Davis Color, Sequoia Sand) sidewalk and indirect floodlighting (Iguzzini, model no. 7733, 175-watt, pole no. 1323-12) runs along the west side of the Green Valley Ranch Recreation Center.


The amphitheater focuses attention on the stage and shelter where summer concerts are held. The venue also hosts graduations, award ceremonies, firework displays and other community events. The building orientation, site and grading design are set high on the site and are focused around the amphitheater and lake, enhancing and framing distant views to Long's Peak and the front range of the Rockies. Undulating berms and terracing enhance the grass amphitheater. The sidewalk leading down to the stage is based on the Fibonacci spiral. The five-acre lake is an irrigation source, onsite retention, stocked with fish and a pleasant backdrop for picnicking.

Red oaks and formal planting beds of feather reed grass and shrubs of Goldflame spirea, catmint and violet hardy pansies buffer the building and sidewalk. River rock cobble (8-12-inch.) abuts the building and a trial of light-brown crusher fines lead to the sidewalk.

A Community Focal Point

The plaza is designed to host farmer markets, art fairs and generally engage the community and promote diverse social activity. The facility brings people together in a way that would not be possible if these projects were treated traditionally by separating different uses to different parcels of land divided by roads and distance. Everything is available for all to use and enjoy. Two converging promenades create a focal point at the plaza, accentuating the south and west sides of the rec center and the plaza with the new Green Valley Ranch Town Center to the south.

The landscape architects wanted no barriers between the various properties, but for security reasons chain link was installed to block entrance into the playground from the open field. The kids are looking through a Mark II binocular telescope which focuses on objects beyond 50 feet. The telescope has 10x40 optic power, with 10x magnification.

Books Seeking a Home

Another key component on the shared facilities site is the planned public library, which will be attached to the school library and bring further interaction between the community and the students.

A fire lane and a turn around area was required for the school. The landscape architects wanted to make the lane more useful, and so created a straight-away asphalt running track between the Omar D. Blair School buildings and the playground, marked in feet, yards and meters. The turning radius for the fire trucks is the basketball courts. The building side is edged with 8-12-inch river rock cobble. The trees are red oak, Canada red cherry, Redmond linden and Austrian pine, with western sand cherry and three-leaf sumac shrubs. The ornamental grasses are dwarf fountain, blue avena, blue grama, little bluestem, yellow Indian and feather reed.

The Park

A park is under construction and includes a soccer and baseball field for the students during school and adult athletes in the evenings and weekends. A skate park is being designed just north of the site. It will, the landscape architects say, incorporate the "vernacular of the prairie and the First Creek drainage."

The "Learning Landscapes" section of the playground features one-ton boulders of igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary formation from the nearby High Plains Stone quarry. They're also good for sitting on.

Collaboration with advocacy groups, the public and a skate park design consultant have created a plan that integrates street uses, such as stairs, rails, curved walls and picnic tables, along with the more traditional half pipe and flow course. Gardens and display areas will feature indigenous species, trails, playgrounds and shelters.

This view from the Learning Landscapes playground looks looking toward the shared gymnasium between the school and the rec center.

Green Valley Ranch Shared Facilities
??""A Place to Exercise the Mind, Body and Soul"

Denver, Colorado

Landscape Architect Firm:
Norris Design, Denver, Colo. ??"

Norris Design Team:
John Birkey, MLA, ASLA ??? Principal-in-Charge
Jared Carlon, MLA ??? Project Manager
Cameron Berglund ??? Landscape Architect

City and county of Denver, Oakwood Homes,
Sink Combs Dethlefs, Anderson Mason Dale

Towards evening looking west on the plaza the pedestrian lights set off the colored concrete and light-brown crusher fines surrounding the autumn blaze maples and red oaks. Site amenities include benches and trash receptacles (Wausau Tile, green) and Chinook tree grates.

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October 20, 2019, 8:47 pm PDT

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