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Denver -- Walkable City of the Future?

A rendering of the Mariposa redevelopment in La Alma/Lincoln Park.

A rendering of the Mariposa redevelopment in La Alma/Lincoln Park.

Walk2Connect's walking maps of northeast Denver neighborhoods.

Walking the Lakeside Trail at Crown Lake on a 13-mile walkabout.

 Enjoying a six-mile 'Get To Know Stapleton' walkabout sponsored by the Stapleton Transporation Management Association.

Better Block Jefferson Park in 2012.

Better Block Jefferson Park in 2012.

Denver nabs respectable rankings in city walkability surveys, but how can the city make itself even more pedestrian-friendly and people-centric? There's a long list of interesting possibilities, from artistic crosswalks to wider sidewalks to wayfinding signs. One problem: They all cost money, and pedestrian projects command less than two percent of transportation budgets.
In 2007, I walked Colfax Avenue, 30-plus miles from eastern Aurora to the Golden foothills, for a travel story. It took three days, there were no major mishaps beyond a blister or two. Sidewalks were the norm except the very beginning and the very end.
But when I look at my own Overland neighborhood between Broadway and the Platte River on the south side of Denver, I see hurdles and blockades. Train tracks, Santa Fe Drive and the Platte River form an unholy, anti-walkability trinity, then there's the dearth of pedestrian crossings on this particular stretch of Broadway -- nearly two miles, four crosswalks. On some trips, that means an extra mile or a mad jaywalking dash, take your pick. 

And most Denver neighborhoods have similar trouble spots. 

So there are vast walkable stretches in Denver, but there are also gaps and challenges -- and not much in the way of funding to fill them. States spent all of $2.17 per capita on walking and biking projects in 2012, according to the Alliance for Biking & Walking, or about 1.6 percent of transportation budgets. 
The same report pegged Colorado as 16th among the states in terms of walking and biking and Denver at 13th among 51 major cities. In terms of per-capita funding, Colorado scrapes closer to bottom, at No. 30, and Denver drops to No. 24. The city fares better, pegged at No. 17, as far as walking to work goes. Another walkability barometer, Walk Score pegs Denver as the nation's 16th most walkable city.
A rendering of the Mariposa redevelopment in La Alma/Lincoln Park. How can we get better?
"Walkability is a characteristic that's hard to put into quantifiable terms, but there are certain factors that are critical," says Kimball Crangle, Senior Developer with the Denver Housing Authority. Crangle highlights wide sidewalks, streetlights and retail areas and other public-facing destinations. 
Crangle is the Project Manager for Mariposa, DHA's redevelopment of South Lincoln Homes in La Alma/Lincoln Park. From the beginning, one of the project's main goals has been to create a more walkable, healthy environment.
At Mariposa, DHA "is really putting the emphasis on pedestrians first," says Crangle. Bicycle amenities, light rail offer connectivity for the "last half-mile" to downtown or the Art District on Santa Fe. There are curb extensions known as bulb-outs to slow traffic, and lower speed limits.
But more important are existing facilities like the La Alma Recreation Center and the Byers Branch Library. "We're really focusing on using the amenities that already exist," says Crangle. "Infill developments always target walkability. You're plunking this into the middle of this amazing place already. That's the beauty of infill."
"Generally speaking, people prefer not to be in their cars," she adds. "You want to be outside but if there are obstacles to walking, you'll get in your car."

WalkDenver: Advocating for pedestrians
Gosia Kung is an architect and urban designer who started WalkDenver with fellow members of a Downtown Denver Partnership leadership program that was part of the "Work Well, Live Well" program. "There's really nobody advocating for people on foot," says Kung, whose firm, Kung Architecture, focuses on sustainable residential and commercial work. "Our group decided to do that." Eighteen months later, it's cultivated about 200 volunteers.
WalkDenver's first big project in 2012 was Better Block Jefferson Park (see video below), transforming a block with amenities, art, walking tours and music. Coming up is Better Block Five Points on May 11, 2013, on 24th Street between California and Welton streets. "There's education and demonstrations to give resources and tools to people to advocate for themselves," says Kung of the event.
Secondly, WalkDenver is pushing to get Denver certified by Walk Friendly Communities this summer. The program, sponsored by FedEx and the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, is maintained by the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina.
"Generally speaking, people prefer not to be in their cars," says Kimball Crangle, Denver Housing Authority Senior Developer. "You want to be outside but if there are obstacles to walking, you'll get in your car."
"We have great bones in Denver," she says of the city's pedestrian infrastructure. One notable problem: "Sidewalk construction and maintenance is up to property owners," says Kung. "They're inconsistent" -- most of all in low-income areas.
The Colorado Department of Transportation is responsible for curb-to-curb projects -- i.e. not sidewalks -- on state highways. But guess what? Colorado Boulevard is a state highway in Denver. So are parts of Federal Boulevard, Alameda Avenue and other major streets  in Denver. 
Then there are U.S. highways like Colfax avenue and Santa Fe Drive. How about federal funding for pedestrian-oriented projects? Kung says that's "wishful thinking."
Kung advocates neighborhood-level solutions from business improvement districts, but ultimately aims to push funding from car-centric projects into people-centric projects, noting that 40 percent of the population doesn't drive.
"Walkability isn't about sidewalks," says Kung. "It's about land use. They have to have places to walk to. We need more mixed-use zoning that allows for density." 
She points to the Art District on Santa Fe as a good example. "People walk there even though the sidewalks are narrow and not very safe." The key: "There are places to walk to."Better Block Jefferson Park in 2012.
A few last thoughts at three miles an hour
Jonathon Stalls might just be the foremost walker in Denver. He walked across the entire country in 2010. It took him 242 days to cover 3,000 miles as he traversed 14 states and slept on hundreds of couches and campsites.
"It was amazing," says Stalls. "It was a real opportunity to simplify and connect with people, and also just connect with thoughts and life at three miles an hour. It was a life-changing experience."
Back home in Denver, Stalls now does urban walking tours as Lead Itinerant and Owner of Park Hill-based Walk2Connect. He just took a group out on a two-day, 26-mile trip from Golden to the Golden Triangle and back -- and works with nonprofits and other groups to make neighborhoods more walkable.
In a year, Walk2Connect has morphed into a full-time gig for Stalls, who now hopes to grow as a business. For his first client, the Stapleton Transportation Management Association, he's created walking maps and organized walking tours in northeast Denver and northwest Aurora. He says he hopes to take the blueprint citywide, and is currently in talks with a few organizations. "That's the hope -- to carbon-copy this process."
Stalls says he thinks Denver has an opportunity to rise to the top of the walkability charts. "In general, there's already quite a bit of infrastructure here," says Stalls. "We have an outdoor-oriented filter in terms of thinking about greenways, sidewalks and urban trails. Denver's on the leading edge of being able to pioneer what the quote-unquote walkable city of the future could look like."
The key is making short trips more walkable, he says. "How do you make a trip to the grocery store compelling and safe and energizing? That's where there's still a gap."

Stalls says we can begin to fill that gap with more and better crosswalks (citing the red ones near Colfax Avenue and Colorado Boulevard and ones that look like piano keys in Salzburg -- check these out), as well as wayfinding signs with walking times and directions. "There's so much room to get creative," he says.

"We're doing a great job supporting local transit," adds Stalls, "but when we go a little deeper, how much money is going into huge parking structures instead of walking and biking lanes?"
To help catalyze walkability, Stalls is helping organize the NE Ped Fest in and around Park Hill on Aug. 24, 2013. "It's going to be a walking event," he says. "My hope is we're building walking behavior."
Stalls says he hopes WalkDenver will blossom into a strong advocacy group for pedestrians like BikeDenver is for the city's bicyclists. "All that needs to happen is to raise the volume and organize the pedestrians as well," he says.
Ultimately, walking is not just about transportation, says Stalls -- it's an activity that melds meditation and exercise with no road rage. Or, as he puts it, "This is how we were engineered to live."

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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