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
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
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.