People in Denver urged to take to the pavements

Denver pedestrian groups promote walking in the urban environment

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

While the city of Denver, Colorado, USA, may be regarded as one of the fittest cities in the US and one can see a literal army of people run and bike whatever the weather. With their long strides and pounding feet, and their whirring spokes, they underscore why the State of Colorado is the least obese in the Union.

Walking to somewhere? Walking to the stores or to work? That is rather a different story and very few would even think about it let alone do it.

Americans, outside of NYC, which is regarded as the most walked and biked city ion the US, while jogging and cycling for sports, and not only Americans fall into that category for in Britain it is much the same, unfortunately, are car orientated when it comes to getting from A to B and going to the shops or to work. Cycling and walking rarely figures on the horizon in that department.

While in rural America it is understandable with the often rather vast distances between places and especially between farms and towns, cities just ask for an alternative approach.

In Denver now two people are trying to change the public's view on walking in the city. One of them is Gosia Kung and the other Dr. Andrew M. Freeman.

In very different ways and for very different reasons (she is an architect and he a cardiologist) they are trying to (re)incorporate the physical activity of walking into the sinews of a place that, despite of its fantastic record of low obesity and high fitness, has lost touch, like most American cities (and not just cities in America), with the idea of walking as means of transportation.

In 2011 Mrs. Kung co-founded a non-profit group called “Walk Denver”, which is trying to get the city certified as “walk friendly”. 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 that creates a pedestrian’s view of the world. Ample sidewalks are crucial 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 many cities have forgotten: better public health and improved economic life go together.

In Europe, where Mrs. Kung comes from, and in her case Poland, cities are different and people do walk there (or cycle) to get to the shops, to work, to school, to visit a cafe or restaurant or to go to the theatre even.

Many European cities can be used as an example, be it Mrs. Kung's birthplace of Krakow, or Prague, Berlin, Hamburg, Copenhagen or Amsterdam. All of them are walked and cycled in great numbers, with the likes of Copenhagen and Amsterdam in the forefront, probably.

British and American cities are different and in the USA it has to do with the layout often where the city centres may be dense where offices, shops, and such are located, but the zones where the homes are are sprawling suburbs that are miles away from the center and thus, in many cases, walking, and even cycling is not an option.

Many of today's American cities were expanded during the oil boom and were designed not with people but with the car in mind. And, while British cities are a little different, here also the life was removed from the city centers in that houses were moved from there to other areas and everything else became offices, shops, cafes, workplaces. This happened a decade or so after the Second World War during the rebuilding of the cities that had been bombed.

Despite the fact that many great European cities also were in ruins they were rebuilt in such a way that people were part and parcel of the center and of the life of the city and would not just travel into the city from afar to work. Thus towns and cities of all shapes and sizes in Europe remained vibrant living places even in the very center and walkable.

In the US the great main exception is Manhattan, NYC. 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. And this is the same what I was saying about the British cities when, after the war, during the rebuilding large road building took place and suburbia, rarely known before, marched further and further into the countryside and away from the city.

Things will have to change and when we finally, all, including the likes of the dipsticks in DC, come to realize that oil is running out, they will.

However, meanwhile the dipsticks are still blinkered as cam be seen by the two transportation bills that went before Congress which will sharply reduce and even eliminate programs to foster more cycling and walking. Those bills, so I understand, have now both been passed, and thus the oil industry is laughing all the way to the bank.

Walking itself, and cycling, can safe money in gasoline or bus or train fares and cost not very much to start with and when it comes to walking all it costs is shoe leather.

It is such a shame that American cities don't seem to get walking and cycling, as a whole. The problem is also greatly confounded by the very fact that the governments in the US, and especially Federal Government, , including the senators and congressmen and-women, are deep in the pockets of the oil industry and walking and cycling is not on their agenda.

© 2012