Denver-Based Urban Design Studio Civitas Shapes New Denver Residential Development through Indigenous Prairie

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As Denver’s Stapleton community moves northward, urban design and landscape architecture studio Civitas takes a nature-first approach that reintegrates the area’s historical Sandhills Prairie ecosystem into a series of open space parks. The Civitas plan responds to a trend by home buyers to value natural open space over more formal parks, and provides ecological benefits for the community.

Prairie redux: Urban design studio Civitas is using natural prairie-inspired open spaces to shape residential development in northeast Denver’s Stapleton community.

“Our objective … is to regenerate this ecosystem for both environmental and human benefit,” says Civitas president Mark Johnson.

“People love the parks, but they love the scale and natural form of the open space even more,” explains Mark Johnson about Denver’s Stapleton Redevelopment – a thriving urban community built on the brownfield site of the former Stapleton Airport. Denver-based urban design studio and strategic consultancy Civitas has been instrumental in the design of Stapleton since the community’s inception in 1988, particularly in the articulation of its beloved parks and greenways. But for its newest neighborhood north of I-70, Civitas is taking a nature-first approach that inverts the traditional people-first pattern of residential development, creating an integrated prairie-like landscape that takes the area back to its natural roots.

Currently at work on the master planning and design of more than 250 acres of Stapleton parks, recreation areas, open spaces, storm water management facilities and habitat development, Civitas is responding to an evolving aesthetic in the northeast Denver community that has homeowners increasingly placing a higher value on natural open space over more formally circumscribed parks – a trend Johnson links to a desire to find a more authentic connection with nature. As a result, residents moving into Stapleton’s newest neighborhoods will find a landscape that is more foreground than background – drawing inspiration from the area’s history and ecology.

"The design of the newest neighborhoods at Stapleton has been a very thoughtful effort to intersect urban living with the beauty of the high plains,” says Heidi Majerik, Director of Development at Forest City Stapleton, Inc. “There is respite in the peace and serenity that is inherent to the prairie while the urban form and park design provides interconnectedness not only with the environment but also with one another."

The return to a more native environment for the community reaps ecological benefits as well. Known for delving into the history of a place to inform its future, Civitas looked to the original wetlands and sand dunes that comprised the Sandhills Prairie ecosystem long before jets and runways crisscrossed the former Stapleton Airport. According to Johnson, groves of cottonwoods dotted the landscape, creating microclimates that captured water. “Our objective, as Stapleton neighborhoods expand to the north, is to regenerate this ecosystem for both environmental and human benefit,” he says of the firm’s Stapleton “Trunk Parks” plan featuring a series of interconnected open spaces that unite the site.

This plan for Stapleton’s newest neighborhoods north of I-70 reverses the landscape typologies Civitas established for Stapleton’s earlier neighborhoods. “Instead of living adjacent to the prairie, Stapleton’s newest residents will be living in the prairie,” explains Civitas design principal Craig Vickers. “The landscape will reflect the natural and organic qualities of the prairie and the cultural influences that made it habitable.”

For Stapleton’s latest phase of redevelopment, Civitas has developed an orchestrated mosaic of landscapes that recall the historic Front Range prairie and provide a stage for experiences, regeneration of habitat, and a balance of programmed and pure natural space (see Stapleton Parks Map):

  •     Opening in Fall 2014, Uplands Park is planned as the “living room” of the community, balancing a formal lawn with sculpted earthworks that “tell a story about the natural movement of water through this area,” says Vickers.
  •     Prairie Meadows Park, the park system’s centerpiece, is linked to the Conservatory Green town center via Valentia Parkway and will emulate the indigenous landscape with wind-swept dunes and high and low bridges for access to the landscape across drainage ways.
  •     Cottonwood Gallery will offer runners and walkers a restorative landscape of native trees, tall grasses, and habitats that meander alongside creekside trails
  •     Sandhills Prairie will strike a balance between tall grass-filled landforms and areas of open lawn to offer users unique vistas of the Front Range.
  •     On the eastern edge of the redevelopment site, the restored Sandhills Prairie landscape will give way to a large Sports Field complex.

About Civitas:
With a core purpose of “creating healthier cities,” Civitas is an idea-based practice of urban designers, architects and landscape architects engaged in strategic planning for urban change and project design for built works. Celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2014, the consultancy and design studio advises on a wide range of strategies for re-imagining urban life and places. For more information, visit Civitas online at

Anne McGregor Parsons, WordenGroup Public Relations, anne(at)wordenpr(dot)com, 303.777.7667

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Darla Worden
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