When the High Line Canal Conservancy set out to create an updated plan for the 71-mile National Landmark Trail, the nonprofit was tasked with managing a unique and broad set of dilemmas. The extensive system cuts through 11 of Denver’s governmental jurisdictions and boasts more acreage than New York City’s Central Park. After reaching out to the community through open houses, events, strategic sessions, and an online survey, the group crafted a unified vision that would ensure the Canal is protected and enhanced for generations to come. The 125-page Community Vision Plan—formally released on Friday, April 28—and the additional summary booklet was written with the help of more than 35,000 community members in an effort to propel this 134-year-old trail into the future.

The need for the Conservancy and the Community Vision Plan grew from a shift in the trail’s primary usage. When construction was completed in 1883, the High Line Canal was intended as an irrigation ditch for the adjacent farmland. Since 1970, portions have been opened up for recreational use—think walking, biking, or running—even though the canal is still owned by Denver Water. As the plan states, “the Canal never reached its full potential as a reliable water supply system,” as a large percentage of the water it does get evaporates or seeps out completely. Now, the Canal is primarily a recreational asset, with more than 500,000 annual users and 350,000 residents located within one mile of its trail.

The Community Vision Plan outlines guiding principles and strategies that will lead the canal and its stewards into the future. The principles were crafted to ensure that the canal will be natural, connected and continuous, varied, managed, and enhanced. Here’s what community members will see as a result of the Vision Plan, as the agencies involved begin their next phase of planning:

New and Improved Flow
In an effort to improve efficiency and water quality, Denver Water, in coordination with Urban Drainage and Flood Control District, has been working to implement stormwater drainage to the Canal. If you’ve walked along this pathway, you’ve probably noticed that water does flow through the ditch. Most of this moisture is from stormwater or overhead flow, such as rain. Based on a 2014 feasibility study conducted by RESPEC Consulting, the stormwater, collected and redirected from existing neighborhood runoff along the Canal, not only improved the water’s quality, but demonstrated that this natural flow would bring 100 more wet days to the canal a year, therefore supporting the varied ecosystems that the Canal hosts.

Neighbors of the Canal may begin to see demonstration projects in neighborhoods from Wellshire to Greenwood Village to continue testing the feasibility of directing stormwater to the Canal. Additionally, about 70 customers still remain on the Canal’s original irrigation program, so transitioning them to new water sources will be a priority.

The Plan is built to enhance and preserve the natural beauty of the High Line Canal Trail. Photo by Jamie Mandell

Renovated Infrastructure
In order for the Canal to reach its full potential, it will likely see its fair share of renovation and restoration. One main problem that the Conservancy and community noted was that the trail was not meeting its potential for connectivity along its 71 miles. As it stands, the trail has several disruptions, including dangerous crossings at 80 busy roads, four of which are major highways, and a number of major gaps created by varied ownership of the trail’s land.

Fixing these gaps is a priority that’s already underway. Nine road crossings are being upgraded—including an underpass being built at Hampden Avenue and University Boulevard—10 connections to other trails are being made through the addition of trailheads and signage to help create a regional system, improvements are underway for pedestrian bridges, and partnerships with new building developments are in process.

The new signage will not only make connections clearer, but will also be used as part of the Conservancy’s mission to enhance the trail. Users should expect the signage to be directional and educational, outlining information about the trail’s legacy and the ecosystems present. An app might even make an appearance in the future.

More Programs to Embrace the Trail’s Diversity
It’s difficult to create a unified vision for something as vast as the High Line Canal. The trail is adjacent to 72 greens spaces, including small parks and state parks, and is home to 199 species of birds, 28 species of mammals, 15 species of reptiles, and 23,760 trees that are greater than six feet in diameter. In order to ensure that no habitat is compromised, the Vision Plan distinguishes five character zones—Wild Canyon, the Rolling Foothills, the Wooded Village, an Urban Refuge, and a Prairie Retreat—with the thought that management and enhancement of each section will be better met by the Canal’s distinctive communities. One strategy aligns the Conservancy with local educational programs, such as the nonprofit Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK), to develop an educational strategy for the next generations of trail users. Expect new programming and partnerships to develop, increasing the Canal’s visibility and cultural importance.

New Opportunities to Get Involved
The Conservancy, 11 jurisdictions, and Denver Water all hope that this Vision Plan triggers momentum for the High Line Canal to reach its full recreational potential. One way they hope to kickstart this effort is by adding new ways for individuals, communities, and local organizations to get involved. Their new membership program—High Line Heroes, which launched with the Vision Plan on April 28—will allow citizens to be directly involved in making decisions about the canal’s future. Members who join this program at different donation levels will receive unique swag and access to events. Other existing programming, including events with ELK and Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado—an organization that creates opportunities for Denver youth to assist with restoration projects—as well as the Conservancy’s Walk2Connect program, which encourages individuals to walk all 71 miles of the trail in 14 walks, will continue. Community members can also expect to see new family-friendly events, ranger programs, summer internships, biking and running groups, and more.