Denver Is Urged to Hit the Sidewalks

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Denver Is Urged to Hit the Sidewalks
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alt DENVER — Quite a few of the frighteningly fit live around here. On a balmy Saturday, or for that matter a frigid winter weekday before dawn, an army of them emerges to run and bike. And in their intimidating long strides and whirring spokes, they underscore why Colorado is the least obese state in the nation.

But walking to get somewhere? Different story.

People like Gosia Kung and Dr. Andrew M. Freeman are trying to change that. In very different ways and for different reasons — she is an architect, he a cardiologist — they are trying to reincorporate physical activity into the sinews of a place that, despite its fantastic body mass index, lost touch like most American cities with the idea of walking as transportation.

Last year, Ms. Kung co-founded a nonprofit group called Walk Denver, which is trying to get the city certified as a “Walk Friendly Community.” It is also an advocate for a previously voiceless group, the ordinary walker — whispering into the ears of city planners, or nagging if need be, and preaching to the public.

It is the physical space of a city, Ms. Kung said on a recent walk through downtown, that creates a pedestrian’s view of the world. Ample sidewalks are crucial, she said, but they provide only the means of access to an environment that must then reward walkers through attractions like shopping and entertainment that cater specifically to foot traffic.

More walkers, whether strolling or striding, in turn reinforce an old idea that Ms. Kung said many cities have forgotten: better public health and improved economic life go together.


“I’ve always been interested in urban design — how we interact with built environments and how it affects us,” said Ms. Kung, who grew up in Krakow, Poland, and never got over the example of its dense and tangled medieval walking streets. Her experience in America, in turn, was immediately intertwined with the downside of the car culture.

“When I moved from Poland to the U.S. in 1997, I got my driver’s license and I gained 20 pounds,” she said.

Dr. Freeman leads a group called Walk With a Doc, which encourages patients to get out, once a month or so, to stroll the city with their physicians. The group’s most recent walk, in January — walkers can be hard-core, too, no matter the season — drew 135 people, including 10 doctors.

“Gosia is working on making it easier and getting people inspired to do walking,” Dr. Freeman said. “We’re out there because exercise is the best medicine. It’s free, and there are no side effects.”

An added appeal to patients in an era of time-stressed medicine, he said, is the idea of extended time with a doctor, right there walking at one’s side. “We chat,” Dr. Freeman said.

But can a walking city really be made? Or is it luck? Manhattan, almost certainly the most pedestrian-dominated urban place in America, never planned for such an outcome; density and the constriction of island life made it just happen as the city grew. Many other cities got so split up or sealed off by the explosion of road building after World War II that pedestrian life all but died, or was never even born.

Denver, founded in the 1850s during the Colorado gold rush, went a third way that city planners said gave them great hope that walkers here could find their feet again.


Certainly, the car culture left its mark, carving out concrete arteries across the city and cleaving neighborhoods where people once walked to the market or their jobs. But the underlying city grid, laid down around the streetcar system that defined Denver’s early years, created a dense ring of nearby “streetcar suburbs” that walkers say could, with luck, one day be stitched back together by transit or pedestrian bridges.

The state’s broader outdoor culture — with its traditions of hiking and skiing that have helped keep obesity rates lower than in the rest of the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although they are higher than they used to be — also raises hopes that urban walking can make a big comeback.

Denver city planners had already set a goal of having 15 percent of residents get to their jobs on bike or on foot by 2020, up from about 6 percent according to the most recent census survey. They said they were grateful that Ms. Kung and her volunteers were keeping the pressure on.

“There are strong biker advocacy organizations in the city, but there hasn’t been one primarily focused on pedestrians,” said Cindy Patton, a senior city planner at Denver Department of Public Works. “We need organizations like that to push us.”

For the moment, Ms. Kung said, her goal is not an all-out mobilization of the city’s would-be pedestrian army, but rather the creation of structures that would, over time, create that army.

She is working, for example, with four elementary schools to start a “walking school bus” program next year. Children and adult leaders would walk home together, burning a few calories and maybe absorbing a new habit.


In June, Walk Denver and a coalition of other groups plan to descend on a run-down block in north Denver for a weekend to show — if only for a couple of days — how economic life and foot traffic could go together. The idea, called the Better Block Project, was pioneered in Dallas around the idea that brief makeovers can pave the way for permanent change.

In the Denver demonstration project, temporary businesses selling ice cream or art will be installed in empty storefronts. Outdoor cafes will rise like flash mobs, there for a weekend and then gone, leaving an echo for inspiration. Live music will beckon people to the neighborhood, organizers say.

Money for making America, or Denver, more pedestrian friendly is not exactly falling from the sky these days. Two transportation bills now in Congress, for example, would sharply reduce or eliminate programs to foster more biking and walking. Ms. Patton at the Public Works Department said the need for grants, or “O.P.M., other people’s money,” as she put it, was more crucial than ever.

But the flip side is that walking itself can save money in gas or bus fare and cost nothing but shoe leather. The Denver Walk With a Doc Web page, for example, uses the word “free” three times, in all capital letters, in case anyone should confuse with it with a regular office visit.

Source: The New York Times
February 13, 2012
By Kirk Johnson, photo by Matthew Staver
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/14/us/denver-pedestrians-promote-walkings-urban-potential.html?_r=2

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