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Growing a Walking Community from the Ground Up: Walk2Connect’s Work in Boulder, Colorado

Last week, Walk2Connect member-owner and Boulder Program Director, Darcy Kitching, attended the Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place conference in Vancouver, B.C. The conference, a biannual gathering of active transportation professionals coordinated by the Project for Public Spaces, brought together more than 1,000 city planners, transportation engineers, public health professionals, elected officials, community leaders, and professional walking and bicycling advocates from around the world. The conference gave participants the chance to take part in active research, experience new public spaces together, share ideas, and learn about worldwide innovations by people who are creating positive change in the built environment for everyone who walks, rolls or rides.

On the last day of the conference, Darcy presented a PechaKucha-style talk (20 slides shown for 20 seconds each) on our programs in Boulder. Below is the prepared text of her short talk, along with the slides she used to illustrate it. We’ll link to video of the presentation once it is available online. All photos used in this presentation are by Darcy Kitching.

 

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Hi, I’m Darcy Kitching, and I’m a walking fanatic! As a native Coloradan, I’ve walked and hiked all my life, and I’m also trained as an urban planner. But I came on board with Walk2Connect, first as a volunteer walking movement leader and then as the program manager for our work in Boulder, Colorado, because of one great walk with the founder of Walk2Connect, Jonathon Stalls.

 

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On that first 9-mile ramble through Boulder, I came to see my own city in a whole new way and met some wonderful people whom I’m still walking with regularly more than a year later. Over just a few hours of walking together, Jonathon modeled the value of connection-focused exploration and the art of creating a fun and engaging route. I decided I wanted to learn how to do that!

 

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The first walk I led in Boulder was around my own neighborhood, on a route I call the “gratitude loop.” Because I love this place and enthusiastically share my enjoyment of this view, I find that others enjoy experiencing it with me, too. We always encourage our leaders to share places and routes they love.

 

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Walk2Connect is a walking co-op – as far as we know, the first one in the world – with member-owners like me developing walking programs in partnership with municipalities and organizations, training volunteer walking movement leaders and recruiting partners to help support and grow the movement.

 

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In Boulder, we have two parallel projects: contracting with the city to develop and carry out the programming for Boulder Walks, and overseeing the volunteer-run, community-based Boulder Ramblers group. Boulder Walks events focus on goals articulated in the city’s transportation master plan, and Boulder Ramblers events reflect the passions of our volunteers. The groups are mutually supportive, and participants say they enjoy the wide variety of events we offer.

 

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All of our walks take full advantage of the pedestrian infrastructure that helps make Boulder a Gold-Level Walk-Friendly Community. Boulder boasts 58 miles of paved multi-use paths, 145 miles of natural Open Space and Mountain Parks trails, 79 pedestrian/bike underpasses, and excellent transit access via RTD, our regional transit provider.

 

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The City of Boulder invests about $2 million per year in maintaining and developing this pedestrian infrastructure – that’s about $20 per person each year. Our walking programs help bring people into those assets, activating and connecting them, and providing some real-time evaluation of how well different places work for walkers.

 

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We primarily use Meetup as a tool for publicizing our walks and growing our community. The membership in our Boulder Ramblers Meetup has tripled since we launched as part of Walk and Bike Month in June 2015. Since then, we have also gained 14 new walking movement leaders. Within the past year, we’ve also developed a weekly walk with Boulder Seniors, and we tap into the more than 3,000 supporters of Walk2Connect on Facebook and Twitter to get the word out.

 

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But the kind of growth we really care about is more personal. Everything we do comes back to this concept of “Life@3MPH”: slowing down to connect to others, to the places we live and to ourselves at a natural pace. That pace is different with a group of seniors than it is with a group of younger people, and we always ensure opportunities to stop, rest and circulate as we walk. We create connections to others, place and self in a variety of ways.

 

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We create connections to others by motivating each other to get outside and walk all year ’round, in all kinds of weather, whether it’s a beautiful fall afternoon, a snowy morning or a hot and sunny summer day.

 

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We connect with others by playing and having fun, in the snow on a trail, at sunrise on a mountaintop, by enjoying a treat at the end of a long walk, and by letting ourselves get lost in the fun of exploring the city.

 

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But most of all, we connect with others by walking to food! Morning hike-to-brunch or walk-to-lunch events are some of our most popular. Here we are enjoying lunch together after hiking almost 7 miles from one end of a trail to the other.

 

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We create connections to place by working with the city to educate people about new investments in the pedestrian environment, to conduct walk audits and special tours to understand how certain streets function for people on foot, and to highlight ways neighborhoods are using city tools to do placemaking and improve their own streets.

 

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We connect with place by slowing down to check out valuable community assets on our walks, such as informal and formal public art projects and Little Free Libraries, and by orienting ourselves to the environment with locally posted maps and wayfinding tools. Our experience of the environment on foot is fundamentally different from getting around any other way. How likely would you be to stop and interact with these sites if you were riding by on a bicycle?

 

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And we connect with place by showing people how to go even farther by foot, on paths and trails that link municipalities, like on this 8-mile walk from Boulder to Louisville. On these longer explorations, we also educate participants about the transit system by providing bus tickets and taking the bus back to our starting point.

 

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We help people connect to themselves, as well, by providing opportunities for meditation and reflection, such as walking a labyrinth. We sometimes offer a few minutes of silence while walking in a quiet place and encourage people to really be where they are.

 

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We help people connect to themselves by asking them to reflect and share their own stories of why they walk. This is Susanne, one of our leaders who was a professional triathlete for many years and who now enjoys walking out on our open space trails to heal and nurture her soul, and who helps others take care of their bodies by walking well.

 

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And we help people connect to themselves by walking toward their own personal goals, connecting with us to learn, find inspiration or train for new experiences. This is Dawn, one of our professional members who came out and walked 12 miles from one end of Boulder to the other with us during Walk and Bike Month this year to train for the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain, which she is walking right now, at the age of 75.

 

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You can’t grow a great program without great leaders! Our volunteer walking movement leaders make all of this work possible, and they are growing our program every day. We now offer 3-4 walks per week in three municipalities in Boulder County, and we’re training more leaders next month.

 

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By focusing on connecting people to others, to place, and to themselves, Walk2Connect has developed a great strategy for growing grassroots and city-sponsored walking programs. We still have a long way to go, however. We’re not reaching everyone in Boulder, and we want to continue to grow and diversify our community and our events calendar. Keep an eye on Walk2Connect as we work toward that goal!