Rivers are the Link from Our Past to Or Future

Jeff Shoemaker is being recognized as a Champion of Change for his innovative energy priorities and sustainable living practices making a greener community a possibility in any American city or town.


The Greenway Foundation originated in 1974 as the Platte River Development Committee, formed after Denver’s massively destructive flood of the South Platte River in 1965. The Greenway Foundation initiated more than just flood control and waste cleanup – the Foundation accomplished the resurrection of the South Platte River and its surrounding area from a virtual cesspool to a place of environmental and recreational pride for the citizens of Denver. Since 1974, the Greenway Foundation has partnered with the City and County of Denver to create 20+ riverside parks, numerous whitewater boat chutes, and a nationally recognized urban trail system, collectively known as the South Platte River Greenway. In addition, The Foundation provides environmental education to Denver Public Schools elementary students and mentors diverse, underserved high school students while employing them as environmental educators and doing habitat restoration on the river.

The group that began that transformation of Denver’s river in 1974 was led by my father, Joe Shoemaker. Joe is famous for imbuing his projects with a mix of pragmatism and idealism. As I complete my 30th year with The Greenway Foundation, I am honored and humbled to carry on his legacy.

I have been blessed to work with passionate, intelligent people who treasure our “greatest natural resource,” and I am pleased to be named as a White House Champion of Change on behalf of this incredible group.

There are important lessons I have learned about how to create meaningful change. The willpower to complete a waterfront revitalization project exists in most cities lucky enough to have a waterfront. There is no magic recipe that converts willpower into reality, but there are elements that can be adopted. Here are a few key principles -- some from my dad and some that I learned via hard knocks:

  • “Green = Green.” Environmental improvements, time and again, prove to be the best investment a community can make in its economic development. The renaissance of downtown Denver and other neighborhoods adjacent to the South Platte River are object proof. The Greenway Foundation has helped to create $100 million of green improvements that have in turn generated over $10 billion in economic development in central Denver.
  • “No power is all power.” The lack of specific, delegated authority allows the organization to work freely with public administrations and to act quickly and boldly.
  • “Show your success early.” As you prioritize projects, the first one or two must be easily-accomplished and impactful in order to gain wide support for subsequent, possibly more complex projects.
  • “Mix things that people love with the geography of your project.” Free concerts and outdoor movies, paintings and sculptures, biking and boating, volunteer river cleanups and outdoor environmental education provided free to the public schools have all served to create one-on-one support among Denver’s citizens.

Rivers run through our history and folklore and link us as a people. Denver’s urban South Platte River has been the engine that fueled the renaissance of our city’s core, and will continue to be the vehicle that drives our economic development even as its residents begin to remedy the abused and neglected parts of our city’s “greatest natural resource” – our river.

The formula for success does not exist in laws, policies, regulations and governmental programs. The real elements consist of people, ideas and dedication. Joe Shoemaker said that and I have lived it.

Thank you – now go create change!

Jeff Shoemaker is the Executive Director of The Greenway Foundation, the non-profit organization that initiated the reclamation of the Denver’s South Platte River and its tributaries.

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