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Painted Prairie Park System Draws Inspiration from the Prairie and its Early Settlers

Feb 22, 2020

Painted Prairie’s parks project leader, Diane Lipovksy describes her vision for the park system at Painted Prairie in this essay on the inspiration, design, and details of High Prairie Park.

Life on the Prairie. The beautiful, subtle, serene, and enigmatic prairie. It is so different from where I grew up, in the green urban woodlands of the East Coast, and perhaps it is the contrast that I saw when I came here that made it seem that much more beautiful to me: the open vistas, the clear blue skies, and electric sunsets, the texture of the grasses, the smattering of trees that signal a precious water source. The promise of those wild Rocky Mountains that have drawn people across the prairie for hundreds of years.

When we began work on the park system for Painted Prairie, we wanted to create truly special open spaces for the future residents here, spaces that celebrate this historic prairie setting while providing the communal amenities that really draw and anchor people today We see the parks as the living rooms for the people of Painted Prairie — the central social spaces at the heart of the community that people want to visit again and again. We wanted to create beloved outdoor park spaces where neighbors can meet and gather, to set up green connections that foster healthy movement, and to carve out unique spots where children from 0 to 100 can play outside, in nature, and just relish in the pure joy of childhood.

Our inspirations for the big neighborhood park were many, including that gorgeous setting, its position at the natural high point of the landscape, and the panoramic views to the mountains. But one inspiration that really struck a chord for everyone throughout the process was Harvey Dunn’s stunning painting “The Prairie is My Garden.” The image of this homesteading woman, standing proud, strong and mighty with her children on the prairie backdrop reminds us of the fortitude required to live here before the great industrial revolution tamed the land and its waters. The colors and textures of the plants, the breeze, the electric sky are all elements we have tried to capture and enhance for people to discover in the neighborhood park. The other great source of inspiration is that very industrial of inventions, the irrigation pivot. At a full quarter-mile radius, this workhorse of modern engineering was what made these lands arable for people to live here and sustain its people. We have tried to capture that precision and that entrepreneurial spirit here at the park.

This is Painted Prarie, so we really tried to evolve the design of the park like a painting. Our first big move was to really celebrate the high point and those views, so we developed the promenade walk along that natural ridge facing Long’s Peak. In fact, the entire community was designed around keeping this natural ridge intact and making it part of the public space. We saw the promenade as a real concentration of outdoor rooms where most people will be gathering for their neighborhood barbecues, playing lawn games and sipping coffee when they run into a new friend. And the client as so committed to making this park one of the best and coolest in the Front Range, so we really tricked out the promenade rooms. The part I am most excited to see full of people is the naturalized arroyo play area. Descending 12 feet below the promenade and packed full of native Gambel oaks, little leaf mountain mahogany, native sandstone slopes, and featuring two custom concrete slides, we really see this place as an unbelievable chance for kids to go wild outside.

Then we wanted to highlight the scale and the feat of irrigating the prairie. Our land as we know here in Colorado is not the deep, fertile lands of the Midwest, and so providing nourishment through local agriculture requires incredible engineering and proper resource management. Early in the process, we looked at so many satellite images of the prairie, and we fell in love with the perfectly round, green panels that dotted the brown plains and signaled irrigated farmland. So at Painted Prairie, we marked the center of an irrigation pivot near the park entry along 60th with a sculptural art piece, and we designed a path along the quarter-mile radius it would extend to cover and water the land. From the promenade, you can really see it, and our builders took great care to make it sing with a single strong, beautiful curve. We then wanted to play with that motif of the round green panels, so we have developed a series of pivot circle gardens that emanate from the quarter-mile path for people to explore. We filled these with everything we would want to have a good time — xeric gardens for meandering, corn hole for playing, lounge chairs for relaxing, tables and chairs for picnics, and a custom concrete coffee table with chairs and a fantastical shade sail “The Osprey” for cover on a warm afternoon.

Next, we knew we needed to have large open spaces for kids to play soccer and adults to pound volleyballs and everyone to fly kites. Sensitive to conserving our precious water resources, we tried to concentrate the lawns at Painted Prairie to places we really needed it for active play and picnicking. Tucked at the base of the promenade and adjacent the pivot circle gardens, The Great Lawn is actually comprised of two lawn terraces that help step down from the high point of the community to the lower drainage areas, which provide stormwater management for the whole neighborhood.

Finally, to create a sense of mystery and discovery and really encourage people to walk through the whole park, the last big stroke of the brush was the Prairie Waves. These are a series of beautifully sculpted berms that negotiate the rest of the terrain down and to the west. Seeded with beautiful mixes of prairie grasses like blue gramma and little bluestem, moving through these landforms reveals a number of whimsical play areas we have tucked within them. And not only grasses; for an urban park, we have taken care to provide a wealth of beautiful trees that really do well within our landscape. Hackberries, catalpa, coffee trees, and honeylocust provide vital shade from our sun, structure in the winter and cover from the winds. But we also have several stunning Ponderosa pines that we sourced locally from the Black Forest here in Colorado. We have really tried to work with the ethos of this naturally arid land to carefully place plants and trees that work well with it, so we can provide a park experience that with the stewardship of its community will sustain generations to come.

There are so many great spaces we created along the promenade. We’ve got these amazing community gardens and a small orchard at the entry to the park because we really wanted to highlight the sense of community they create, the site’s agricultural heritage and our commitment to thinking locally here. I know when I lived in Los Angeles, I met many great people through my love of gardening and foraging for fruits, so I would love if Painted Prairie made it onto the Falling Fruits map. I’m really excited to see what folks will grow here and how they will make this space their own, and I can’t wait to come back to see people harvesting the fruits as they ripen.

Near the community gardens, we wanted to create a yin of discovery to the community garden’s yang of hard work. Here, we have a really nicely scaled butterfly garden. In the map view, we designed the gardens to mimic the shape of a Prairie Skipper Butterfly wing, so kids could run like a butterfly. We worked with folks at the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, to select plants to help attract butterflies — species like Gaillardia, Butterfly Bush, Yarrow, Echinacea, and Prairie Zinnia. This is a nice alternative to the highly formal entry gardens, a place where kids and adults will be greeted with a more rustic cottage garden, one that really speaks to the Front Range plant palette.

We incorporated so many great little rooms into the design, to make a really rich and inviting experience for people of all stripes. We have two beautiful large picnic pavilions with fantastic views of the mountains and to a series of mini picnic pavilions, we’ve dotted throughout the rolling native hills below. We really wanted to amplify the opportunity for nature play, about two-thirds of the way down the promenade to the north, we sculpted a deep fissure in the landscape to represent a Colorado arroyo. Packed with tons of native shrubs and grasses, the arroyo allows kids to wend or slide their way down to the amazing spaces below and beyond. To span the arroyo along the promenade, we have this lovely, simple pedestrian bridge that really gives you the opportunity to stand and appreciate the incredible views both in and beyond the park. We put an overlook wall opposite the bridge, closer to the street, to draw you towards this great moment, and put some beautiful stone signage there to help tell the story of the arroyo landscape. At the end of the promenade, we wanted to terminate your view and experience with an opportunity to sit and relax — and then take off! We located our sand beach and chaise lounge chairs here, adjacent to three bright orange vintage ski chairlift swings that are angled toward the major ski resorts. I can’t wait to see people softly swaying in those chairs, really taking in the majesty of the mountain peaks and enjoying a calm, quiet moment amidst the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives.

Life on the prairie wouldn’t be complete without the magic of playtime. We wanted to give kids a special glimpse into the look and feel of the pioneer, so we really wanted to create a series of play experiences centered around the treehouse. We were inspired by the Swiss Family Robinson ethos, and so we worked with Beanstalk Builders out of North Carolina to craft some really beautiful experiential play features that really amp up the views of the grasslands, the mountains, and the different areas around the park. We loved Beanstalk’s whimsical approach to play and their unusual, natural style. These pieces are so unique here, but they really work with the prairie aesthetic we have developed here. We worked closely with Isaac Hoff and his team to create a suite of play features that would encourage kids and families to move throughout the whole park, from the cluster of treehouses nestled in Ponderosa Pines.

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