On August 1, 2019, CALC and DSP hosted the workshop Race, Place, and Open Streets, facilitated by Dr. Adonia E. Lugo, an urban anthropologist and mobility advocate based in Los Angeles. The workshop focused broadly on building a shared vision of Denver’s streets, with attention to the experiences of all.
By coincidence, the workshop occurred at the end of a deadly summer on Denver’s streets. Four years after Vision Zero was adopted by city council, Denver has experienced a rising fatality rate across all modes, 49% higher than at this point in 2018. While Vision Zero was not the focus of the workshop, the year’s fatalities have contributed to a growing sense of urgency among bicycling and pedestrian advocates for increased safety and infrastructure improvements.
“Histories of mobility and immobility matter”
Dr. Lugo’s talk challenged us, even during this hard time, to think of how solutions beyond infrastructure and planning can contribute to better mobility options for all. She began the workshop with the story of her journey to Denver, which started centuries ago with an aunt, and noted her observations of the terrain and people on the train and bus trip she took here from Los Angeles. Participants were then asked to share their own stories of mobility in or to Denver. In my group, we heard from a community organizer who is fighting for better bus routes in her community, a bicycle advocate who recently changed her commute from the city’s trail system to the streets, a resident concerned with air quality and population growth, and a recent transplant who found that Denver was easier to bike in than previous cities but seemed at a standstill on how to move forward. Sharing these stories helped our small groups understand where and how each of us had arrived, and what topics and histories we were bringing to the conversation. “Histories of mobility and immobility matter,” she stated, noting that in her work, she defines mobility broadly to emphasize how people move through their communities- economically, socially, and physically.
“Bodies experience the built environment differently”
Dr. Lugo then gave some more background on her work bringing people’s voices and experiences to the forefront of public planning processes. While many cities are moving towards adopting more multi-modal standards for their streets and infrastructure, these changes create far from universal experiences for people using them. Some may see a bike lane as a safety improvement on a street, while to others it can be a sign that their community is turning into someone else’s. The streets and built environments in our communities, like everything else, are part of larger systems and trends in history which segregated and isolated groups of people based on race, income, or physical or mental ability. These voices need to be part of planning and decision making going forward, and solutions need to go beyond infrastructure to address underlying issues affecting the choices people have.
Denver, 2069: What will public safety look like?
What will healthy mobility look like?
For the second part of the workshop, groups were asked to share their vision for Denver’s mobility over the next 50 years. Dr. Lugo challenged participants to think about these questions in terms of people rather than infrastructure. This shift in thinking was easier said than done for our group, as we realized that much of the language around safety and mobility is centered around materials over people: terms like built environment, green infrastructure, even terms like walkability and bikeability focus on the setting of urban space, not the human component. In contrast, reframing our vision around people led us to terms like connected, shared, living, dynamic, open when discussing our ideals for public space.
Participants were then asked to brainstorm partnerships we would need to accomplish our vision. Responses ranged from local and large businesses to individuals. Our group discussed the importance of local witnesses for mobility, people that spend a large amount of time in a specific area of the city have a tremendous amount of local knowledge and expertise, and could provide valuable insights into planning processes.
The workshop wrapped up with a bike ride around the proposed 5280 loop, a 5.28 mile route through five neighborhoods in Central Denver. Led by Andrew Iltis of the Downtown Denver Partnership, participants learned about existing barriers to connectivity and greenspace through the area, and how the project was planning to work with the city and neighborhoods to provide a connected and open space reflective of each area’s character. For more information on this project, visit the Downtown Denver Partnership's website.
Overall, the session brought a different perspective to discussions about mobility, one focused on the people’s lived experience and history, and their connections to and through place. I left the session and the ride thinking through terms I often take for granted, like safety and access, and how they can mean different things for different communities. At a time when our city is rethinking what public space and transportation should look like, there needs to be a way to connect these diverse histories into larger planning processes, to connect the built environment to human mobility.