Walk Denver, new nonprofit, pushes toward sustainable, pedestrian-friendly transportation

When Gosia Kung moved from Krakow, Poland, to Denver at 25, she immediately gained twenty pounds. This has a lot to do with the fact that she stopped walking everywhere. While she never applied for a driver's license in her dense urban home city, it was first on her list after her move to Colorado. And in the fifteen years since then, the forty-year-old co-founder of Walk Denver has yet to stop worrying about the consequences.

Although the concept of sustainable transportation has motivated her for more than a decade, it wasn't until July 2011 that she and a handful of others began to push toward it on a larger scale. Many of the group's current organizers began bouncing the idea around during their time in the Downtown Denver Partnership's 2011 Leadership Program, where last year's theme was, "Live Well, Work Well." Gradually, they found that their interpretation of the goal focused heavily on Denver's daily commutes.

"We realized that there is some strong advocacy for bikers here, such as Bike Denver, but there's no one really speaking for walkers," says Kung, who works as an architect. "We decided to be that voice."

A few months after meeting in coffee shops in July 2011, the group gained official nonprofit status and the name Walk Denver, modeled after it's bicycle-friendly partner. Today, approximately fifteen volunteers and organizers front the group, which is financially sponsored by the Colorado Nonprofit Development Center. Profiled in the New York Times last week, Walk Denver has become both a player and an impetus in the city's overall plan to advance options for sustainable transportation.

The statistic that the group struggles with most is a financial one: Of all the funding spent on transportation at the national scale, says Kung, only 1.5 percent currently goes toward improving pedestrian and biking infrastructure. "The safety for pedestrians has been neglected," she says, "and that's reflected in the numbers."

With greater financial backing geared at on-foot options, Kung says an initiative targeted at walking would later pay off for communities and their small businesses. Kung argues that the connection between economic health and physical health often fall by the wayside when the government considers transportation.

This idea is central to the group's involvement in the Denver date of the national Better Block program. In June, Walk Denver, the Federal Boulevard Partnership and a handful of other institutions will take to the 2900 block of West 25th Avenue to revamp the area from the ground up over the period of a day. Walk Denver is currently pushing for Denver to make it on the list of nationally recognized Walk Friendly Communities.

"Why are we always surrounded by drive-through banks and pharmacies and restaurants?" asks Kung, who works from home but tries to walk to meetings with clients. "I don't like how that culture affects our social lives and travels and the aesthetics of our environment, and I've always been interested in how our method of transportation affects our quality of life."

In the near future, Walk Denver will be involved in city discussions regarding the connectivity between the Auraria campus and downtown Denver as well as improvements to the 16th Street Mall.

In Walk Denver's seven weeks of official nonprofit status, its response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive. After all, Denver is already well-regarded as a physically active city, Kung points out, adding only that this status should be better developed in the arena of transportation. Since it began, Walk Denver has attracted the support of local politicians and walking enthusiasts, including City Council member Susan Shepherd and Mindy Sink, the author of Walking Denver.

"There's a lot of high-level discussion, but the change happens on the individual level," Kung says. "Our motto is 'People are pedestrians by design,' so if we design for pedestrians, we'll fix a lot of problems in the process. It goes toward environmental sustainability, all these huge problems and words we're struggling with, but if we bring it to this human level, we'll see a lot of positive changes. We want cars to be a last priority."

More from our Environment archive: "2900 block of West 25th Avenue targeted for Better Block project."

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