I first met the Denver Parks crew at Southwest Ruby Hill/Barnum last summer. I spent the day with horticulturalists Haakon Sletten and Mike Cockrell as they tended to the already flourishing flowerbeds of the summer of 2015 and ordered the flowers that would eventually be planted in the spring of 2016. I was amazed by the beauty of their complex work and the expansive knowledge that went into maintaining the 25 parks under their care.
They are charged with ordering, planting, and maintaining the right combination of flowers, trees, plants, and grasses. They listed off plants the way most people list off family members, with a level of expertise I couldn’t even imagine. One afternoon, several local residents walked by Haakon as he tended to a flowerbed he designed and planted in Houston Lake Park. “Beautiful work,” they said. Haakon, quiet and humble, simply waved and smiled.
The first things I noticed about them were how open they were to leading innovation and how passionate they were about parks. Haakon (pictured above at Huston Lake Park) and Mike are not just great at being horticulturists but are also Black Belt trained, and skilled at identifying waste and opportunities to improve processes. Haakon created a training manual and checklist for seasonal staff on applying herbicide. He also created a chemical tracking spreadsheet and checklist. Mike worked with his supervisor, Abby McNeal, to lead a reorganization and clean-up of their shop. They replaced individual desks with shared tables and lockers, acquired an extra refurbished computer from surplus to provide a better computer space for staff working in the field, designed and hung production boards listing tasks for each park, and even built new shelves from existing supplies.
Mike (pictured above) said that Abby McNeal stood out as a supervisor who listened to his ideas and supported his efforts to implement changes. In addition to the shop reorganization, Mike set-up and coordinated heavy equipment training for employees, which allowed for better work distribution and cross-training. This year, Haakon will continue to work on an innovation to improve equipment tracking between the five Southwest park districts. The team is also experimenting with ways to bring multiple horticulturalists onto one project at a time. By combining their efforts, they are finding that they are better able to work through large projects faster.
Ruby Hill is currently under construction for the development of a bike park. They will soon also add an amphitheater. Both projects will significantly increase traffic to the park and the team is innovating to improve upon current systems knowing that a growing city brings new challenges to park maintenance. Ruby Hill already experiences more trash and graffiti than many of Denver’s other parks and the staff feel a strong responsibility to protect the resources entrusted in their care. Abby (pictured below with the author) spent several hours explaining the importance of maintenance for the heavily utilized sports fields and Mike told me about the various methods of graffiti removal, a weekly task for this crew.
It has now been close to one year since I first met the crew at Southwest Ruby Hill/Barnum and they have forever changed the way I view parks. I never truly appreciated or understood the heavy toll we as citizens place on our parks. With every game, every piece of trash, every tag, we place a burden on our most treasured natural resources. Often, we never even see the impact because employees like Haakon, Mike, and Abby are up before the sun comes up to collect trash, remove paint, and repair the soil. I was amazed by the care and dedication they’ve given to each innovation and to each flower and I was inspired by their humility and knowledge. If you’re ever up before the sun, be sure to look for Haakon, Mike, Abby, and the hundreds of other dedicated Parks employees as they help make Denver more beautiful and more efficient. One flower at a time.