A zigzagging walkway gives a once-polluted river new life

Climbing 28 feet above the banks of the South Platte River in Denver, a bold new walkway has given residents the chance to interact with a waterway that was long ignored. Here, the architect behind it shows how the walkway’s natural—and nonnatural—surroundings inspired its form.

Designed by the Denver-based design-build firm Tres Birds in collaboration with landscape architects at Wenk Associates, the 400-foot sloped walkway is part of the Arkins Promenade, a three-block-long linear park that’s one of few places in the city where people can get up close to the river’s edge.

“It was polluted heavily for about 100 years,” says Michael M. Moore, founder of Tres Birds. “All of our industry from the late 1800s until about 25 years ago was right on the river. The river was not accessible to people. It was not nice.

“The intention behind that [walkway] project was to give people an experience of the river,” he adds.

[Photo: Parrish Ruiz de Velasco, courtesy of Tres Birds]

The zigzag shape frames the experience, offering specific views up- and downriver, as well as aerial angles of the riverbed, the currents within its flows, and even the now-thriving fish populations and other wildlife there. Rising over, along, and sometimes askance to the river, the walkway expands the surface area for people to take in its views.

A lot of the shape was guided by existing trees on the site. “The trees certainly were influencing,” Moore says. “We didn’t want to cut down any big established cottonwoods. They’re an ally of ours to shade the walkway.”

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[Photo: Parrish Ruiz de Velasco, courtesy of Tres Birds]

Old telephone poles have been reused as structural support. “I like to use materials that are from the regions and don’t have a lot of street value,” Moore says.

They also allow the project to maintain a light footprint on the river bank. “We had no foundations and we used no concrete,” Moore says. “You just auger a 16-inch hole and literally drop the poles in.”

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[Photo: Parrish Ruiz de Velasco, courtesy of Tres Birds]

Located in Denver’s rapidly developing River North neighborhood, the walkway is close to the RiNo ArtPark, a cultural center with public space, a library, and an art gallery, which Tres Birds also designed. Beyond, urban redevelopment is underway along the riverfront, with several large-scale, 12-story residential and mixed-use buildings on the rise.

The elevated steel walkway offsets what Moore sees as a “juxtaposition between the new buildings and the very natural river corridor.”

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[Photo: Parrish Ruiz de Velasco, courtesy of Tres Birds]

The shape of the walkway creates opportunities for what Moore calls living rooms, or small seating areas where visitors can pause and take in views of the river or just have a little privacy from the busy bike path below and the forthcoming residential buildings nearby.

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[Photo: Parrish Ruiz de Velasco, courtesy of Tres Birds]

Part of the design also involved adding a lot more vegetation to the site, which was formerly a parking lot. Moore says trees have been planted to shroud the walkway in a leafy canopy, almost to the point that it disappears. The intention, he explains, is that in 5 or 10 years “you don’t see the walkway when you’re walking by on the promenade, and you sort of discover its entries because it’s so integrated with the trees and these view corridors down to the river.”

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