Denver Mayor Michael Hancock with CU Denver students

It’s not often that an undergraduate student gets to build something that thousands of people will pass through as they enter a lush and leafy reprieve from the sea of concrete.

Visitors to the pop-up park in Denver
Residents and visitors alike are flocking to the new Denver pop-up park on 21st St. CAP and Inworks students at CU Denver designed and built the park entrances.

CU Denver students got to ditch the classroom in favor of turning soil, pounding nails and solving in-the-field design problems during a Maymester Design Build class. They put their creative stamp on an entire city block, installing archways that grace the entrances to a new City of Denver concept – a summer pop-up park, featuring food trucks, a dog park and music – in the Ballpark neighborhood.

“For me, it’s incredible to have the city say, ‘Yes, we trust you with $10,000,’” said student Genevieve Hampton. That was the budget that students and their instructors – Maria Delgado and Jo VandenBurg from the College of Architecture and Planning (CAP) and Monika Wittig from Inworks – received from the city to design and install the eye-catching entryways.

In late spring, the city closed the one-block section and began covering the pavement with turf, 60 trees, a music stage and the artful, student-designed entrances at Lawrence and Larimer streets. It’s fitting that 21 students enrolled in the Maymester course as the the verdant and shady block is now dubbed “The Square on 21st.”

Architecture student Tyler Ellis said the tangible nature of the project has been rewarding. “We’re mostly focused on the page when we’re in design studio,” he said, “so being able to see it manifested in physical form has been great.”

A collaboration is born

Inspired by CU in the City campaign

Maria Delgado, a doctoral Design and Planning student at CU Denver, was so inspired by the new CU in the City marketing campaign that she scoured the internet for design projects that would integrate student learning with downtown’s urban environment. “I was researching possible content for my spring class. I was inspired by Chancellor Horrell and our campus leadership’s whole concept of CU Denver being ‘CU in the City,’” Delgado said. “This project is a result of that movement.” Jo VandenBurg, another instructor in the class, added, “This is what you get when you say ‘CU in the City:’ You get cool stuff in the city.”

Delgado, a doctoral student in the Design and Planning Program in CAP, reached out to the city’s office of Community Planning and Development last winter when she saw the project posted online. Her initial suggestion was for city officials to critique a few student-created renderings. “From that meeting they said, ‘Well, actually we have $10,000 budgeted (for the entryways) and we’d love for your students to design and build something,’” Delgado said.

With a tight deadline approaching – the park debuted June 15, with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and other dignitaries in attendance (photo at top), and remained open through late August – Delgado wondered how she and her students would be able to get all the work done in time. The solution was a CAP-Inworks cross-listed Maymester course that literally put students in hardhats out on the street. The city changed the project name to “The Square” based on the students’ concept.

Hampton said Design Build students are usually limited to creating small-sized models in the studio. “To walk through this design on this scale is something we’re not used to – it’s exciting,” she said. “It’s a design project with real-world constraints that we’ve had to adjust to, like the curve of the street.”

In spring, CAP and Inworks students met several times with city representatives to explain their idea and receive feedback. The designs were nearly ready when the Maymester Design Build class started on May 15.

Although the class runs three weeks, students only had 11 days to complete everything for The Square on 21st project. That’s how quickly they moved from a computer rendering, to figuring out how to build the entrances, to ordering the materials, to cutting the wood sheets, to installing and painting them. “It was crazy,” VandenBurg said of of the process, noting that students worked 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day over that span.

Bicyclist enters Denver pop-up park
A bicyclist enters The Square on 21st through one of the entryways designed and built by CAP and Inworks students at CU Denver.

While CAP graduate students in Design Build have created projects across the state and in the metro area, the Ballpark effort marks the first time a Design Build undergraduate class has installed a local project. “It’s really cool because it’s just a few blocks away from school,” Delgado said. “It’s been a real collaboration for CAP, Inworks and the City to be able to visit the site daily and see the project grow.”

Grand way to make an entrance

The collaboration included access to cutting-edge technology available through both CAP and Inworks. CAP recently acquired a computer numerical control (CNC) router that replicates a machine already available at Inworks. The two CNCs allowed students to cut 83 sheets of plywood for the arches – set in accordion-like fashion at the Larimer entrance, where 14 are installed, and the Lawrence entry (seven more) – in quick and precise fashion.

The pop-up park will host food trucks, summer concerts and serve as a pleasant gathering spot for folks strolling or cycling just east of Coors Field.  The Square on 21st acts as a trial run for a potential permanent “activated block” to be installed in a pocket of town lacking green space, said Delgado, who founded the CU Denver Design Build Institute of America student chapter club.

Students install entryways at Denver pop-up park.
CU Denver students from CAP and Inworks worked eight hours a day over an 11 day-span to complete the entryway projects at the pop-up park, which opened June 15 in Denver’s Ballpark Neighborhood.

The entrances play a key role in the park. They guide walking and bicycling visitors into the green space, encouraging them to meander through the park.

For Delgado, the best part of Maymester has been seeing students’ faces light up with pride as the entrances gained dimension and flair. “It’s neat because other people will be able to experience what our students have designed and built,” she said. “They’ve left a mark.”

To see more photos of the project, click here.

CU in the City logo