Finding Freedom in a New Denver Park

Parks are places where children play and neighbors come together to relax, recreate, and connect with nature. At The Trust for Public Land, we believe the best parks should reflect the needs and interests of the people who use them. That’s what makes Denver’s New Freedom Park so special; it was designed and will be maintained with the help of the local community—a group of war refugees with a hope to play and grow food.

Working closely with Denver Parks and Recreation, the Colorado Health Foundation, local nonprofit and business partners, and, most importantly, residents—we recently transformed a vacant lot into the community-named New Freedom Park, a place where families can grow fresh food, children can play safely, and neighbors can gather.

“Engaging the community—from elders to the youngest kids—was crucial for us,” remarks Tim Wohlgenant, The Trust for Public Land’s Colorado state director. “Denver Parks and Recreation emphasizes sustainability, meaning that residents should help to maintain this park in perpetuity. In order to get that level of commitment, residents had to be brought into the planning from the beginning. It had to be their park, not ours, or the city’s.”

A Safe Place to Play and Grow

The scene at New Freedom Park seems more fitting of a rural African or South Asian village than a Denver neighborhood. Four different languages are spoken here, none of which is English or Spanish. The Somalis were among the first to arrive; other groups include Bantu, a minority ethnic group from Somalia; Karen people from southern Burma; and refugees from the African country of Burundi and the central Asian nation of Bhutan. All were placed here by the U.S. State Department and have found refuge under the watchful eye of Mercy Housing, a Denver-based nonprofit group.

Living in cramped city apartments, the refugees longed for access to the outdoors. To avoid the street, children began playing in the glass-strewn vacant lot next door. The adults, many of whom were farmers in their home country, started to garden there as well, dragging a hose across an alley to water the tiny plot of land. Soon, this barren two-acre field became a makeshift backyard for the refugees and their low-income neighbors–and the desire for a permanent park was born.

“All of the Somali Bantu have been farming since a young age,” says Rasulo Rasulo, a refugee from Somalia. “Many of us do not know how to read or write, so we bring out our knowledge on the farm. But before we could start gardening, we had to talk to the city council to get permission to use the land.”

By the People, For the People

The people turned to Denver Parks & Recreation, who, recognizing that a park and garden would benefit the entire community, reached out to The Trust for Public Land.

“We met with local residents to gain an understanding of what they wanted in their new park. Certainly there was no shortage of suggestions, says Wade Shelton, project manager for The Trust for Public Land. “What we heard from the gardeners was more garden space to grow fresh food,” he says. “All of the kids wanted a soccer field and a basketball court. And, of course, everyone wanted a shaded area with seating that would feel safe.”

A towering cottonwood tree now stands in the middle of New Freedom Park, ringed by bench seats. From here, community members chat and relax while watching an impromptu soccer game and surveying their growing gardens. Today, New Freedom Park is a colorful and beautiful space for a diverse group of weary refugees to finally call their own.