The city of Denver is an inaccessible patchwork. A years-long battle has brought it to the ballot
By Hanna Brooks Olsen
There are some aspects of city life that are just assumed. Small businesses will open and operate stores. The United States Postal Workers will service the blue mailboxes. And the local government will build, pave, and maintain the roads and sidewalks. But not in Denver.
Historically, Denver’s property owners, not the city government, have been financially responsible for sidewalks. As a result, a pedestrian can walk half a mile and experience a wide array of routes, ranging from worn “desire paths” to hand-built trails to the odd chunk of sidewalk that one homeowner commissioned years ago. For the last seven years, a coalition of citizens has been working to correct this dangerous, ableist system.
Voters will have the opportunity to approve a ballot initiative this fall that would create a sustaining, reliable source of revenue solely dedicated to the city’s sidewalks. If approved, Denver Deserves Sidewalks will mark a major milestone for a years-long campaign spearheaded by a coalition of residents — but why did it take almost a decade and a plea to the voters to get the City of Denver to figure it out?
For many people, the problem of Denver’s sidewalks just looked too far gone. According to the campaign, “40% of Denver streets have missing (10%) or substandard (30%) sidewalks that are too narrow to accommodate a person in a wheelchair, a parent with a stroller, or just two people walking side-by-side.” And in spite of citywide stated priorities about equity, the sidewalks (or lack of sidewalks) make it clear that actively confronting inequality in the city was a challenge. The campaign reports that nearly half — 47% — of streets in low-income areas have missing or substandard sidewalks. Many of the existing pathways are too slim for people to comfortably use, especially while pushing a stroller or using a wheelchair or other mobility device.
All told, Denver’s sidewalks are in poor shape, thanks to decades of neglect from city government and an inability to come together to decide that now’s the time to fix it.
That time is now. But the question of whether or not it’s possible remains.
The goal – get a comprehensive network of sidewalks throughout Denver – may seem simple, especially considering a general lack of opposition from the community. But creating a system which can catalog, survey, and then ultimately build or repair sidewalks will require a degree of planning that Denver has previously been unable to deliver.
Lack of Sidewalks Out of Sync with Stated Priorities
It’s not as though Denver has been negligent about street safety broadly. The city has a Complete Streets plan and have for years. They also rolled out a Vision Zero plan in 2017 and has been tracking crashes and injuries. Their Vision Zero dashboard cites the Mayor Michael Hancock’s “commitment to eliminate all traffic-related deaths and serious injuries on Denver’s roadways by 2030.”
Unfortunately, Jill Locantore, the Executive Director of Denver Streets Partnership, says that this promise wasn’t backed up with a real plan.
“Denver’s Vision Zero plan has 70 action items, including their own goal of building out 20 miles of sidewalks per year,” Locantore explains. “But they just…don’t do it. It doesn’t get done because there’s no funding.”
As is often the case, the lofty Vision Zero goals were laid by elected officials and city planners who may not have fully understood the undertaking. Their intentions were there — but their planning and preparation were not, says Locantore.
“They had Grand ambitions to inspect the entire city within 11 years…and that failed,” she stated wryly. “They just didn’t realize how much effort it would be.”
Funding was the biggest issue. The initial plan presented by the city provided a fraction of the money needed to fully inspect and negotiate and fix every property. The dollar amount assigned to sidewalk construction did increase — from precisely zero to between $2 and $3 million. But at that pace, says Locantore, it “would take 400 years” to fix every sidewalk.
The campaign is asking for much more — $40 million, courtesy of a designated source. A small fee would be assessed on properties, creating a stream of money that can only be spent on sidewalks. This will help reduce the internal hemming and hawing from City Hall because they won’t be able to divert the funds anywhere else. Plus, Locantore explains, this will allow the city to bond against the fee without approval to generate a large investment.
“This allows the buildout to move quickly and more directly and ensures that the fee is there in perpetuity for ongoing repairs.”
The end result?
“Everybody will get sidewalk improvements in their neighborhood within nine years.”
Locantore says that the initiative would never have made the ballot without help from the many volunteers. From accountants to former city planners to community organizers, people came together to lend their skills and help shape the policy. Fortunately, she said, she was prepared to accept the help and ready to work together to build something that, unlike the City’s piecemeal plans, would actually work.
People Get So Excited
With just a few months left until voters cast their ballots, no organized opposition has come together to fight against the initiative. Instead, people are getting excited. The campaign had to collect thousands of signatures just to get the initiative on the ballot. In doing so, organizers met with people in the community who couldn’t believe that something might finally get done. Locantore called it “defeatism,” especially in underserved areas who believed that their city government didn’t care about them. But they became interested when they heard it was a campaign about sidewalks.
“It’s amazing what you can get used to…it’s just always been this way and people are just resigned to it,” she explains.
Once the ballot question was finalized, Denver Elections tweeted an announcement letting voters know it would be coming to them. Under the tweet were people cheering.
“YESSSSSSS this is so exciting!” replied one.
“Wow! That’s a much needed initiative. Good luck now with the election,” tweeted another.
Denver’s terrible sidewalks are well known and resoundingly disliked — which is what the campaign is banking on come November.
It’s deeply unfortunate that the people of Denver have had to wait so long; adding sidewalks to their neighborhoods would have almost certainly saved lives in addition to making their community easier to navigate. The lack of sidewalks not only makes life more difficult and dangerous for people who use mobility devices, it also presents challenges to new parents pushing strollers, senior citizens, and small children learning to walk. The City could have passed this same change themselves years ago, but Locantore says it’s a matter of political will.
Everyone she’s spoken to on the campaign trail has said that sidewalks are a priority, but many never expected them to get built. And that, she said, was one of her biggest pieces of advice for walkability advocates in other areas: Talk to people. Get people excited. Show them what’s possible and they’ll get involved in the campaign to make it possible.
“Showing up builds community,” she says simply. “Community brings people together.”