Boulder residents now have a detailed history of the naming of the city’s parks, thanks to research by 70 undergraduate and graduate students in the University of Colorado Boulder’s Department of History.
In summer 2020, the city of Boulder’s Parks and Recreation Department (BPR) approached the history department about a possible collaboration to research the namesakes of the parks in Boulder.
Since then, students over four semesters have investigated the history of Boulder’s 82 parks to determine what stories might be missing and how the park names reflect the Boulder community’s values today.
“I was eager to get students involved in projects that invigorated the classroom experience, especially during the pandemic,” said Phoebe Young, a professor of history who co-led the project.
“It allowed them to explore questions on the ground in their own local context, and see how their own historical research and analysis could contribute to meaningful public dialogue.”
Students in Young’s class visited the parks, researched the history of the names, identified patterns and then presented their findings to BPR the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. Their research revealed that 29 parks are named after individuals or families, 26 are for streets or neighborhoods, seven for nearby landforms, and three for flora or fauna. The rest were named after programs, businesses, schools and organizations.
The city recently shared the research on their website so community members could easily explore the history behind their local parks.
“As the goals and ideals of a city change, it's important that we reflect on how the naming of parks plays into who feels welcome in a space,” said Connor Siruta, who was an undergraduate in Young’s fall 2020 class and an intern on the project.
Siruta, who is traveling to Gambia in October to volunteer in the Peace Corps, said his experience working on this project taught him the value of history in the public forum.
“You’ll find this situation anywhere in the world, even where I’m going in Africa,” he said. “You have to realize that a community’s history affects the way people view and experience their surroundings, and this internship put that into perspective for me.”
Young hopes the research will support the city in developing strategies for using historical research to foster inclusivity, and aid in their goal to make parks places where everyone feels welcome.
“The city can now plan for future naming in a way that gradually becomes more representative of the community, adding recognition for significant figures and groups from Boulder’s history and recent past that are not commemorated on our landscape.” she said.
One example of a community coming together to rename a park is the story of Emma Gomez Martinez Park. This park is named in recognition of Boulder activist Emma Gomez Martinez, who advocated that a site of Quonset huts owned by CU Boulder should be turned into a park for the Latina/Latino/Latinx community.
In 2013, the site was renamed from Canyon Park to Emma Gomez Martinez Park in recognition of her dedication to the park, the Latina/Latino/Latinx community and the city.
Looking to the future, BPR will continue to explore park names to ensure they reflect the city’s values. This strategy will inform the naming of future parks, such as Violet Park, which will be designed and built in 2022–23 and is currently named for the street adjacent to the undeveloped site.