Gosia Kung, Executive Director and Founder of WalkDenver, Stepping Down at Year’s End
Kung sat down with Streetsblog to talk about WalkDenver's wins, the challenge of battling bureaucratic inertia, and the organization's future.
Gosia Kung will step down as head of WalkDenver on December 31, six years after she founded the city’s pedestrian advocacy organization.
WalkDenver has been a potent player in the fight for a walkable city under Kung’s leadership. She and her staff pushed elected officials and city departments to fund millions of dollars in sidewalk construction and create a fund to help low-income residents pay for sidewalk repairs — and that was just in 2017.
Under Kung, an architect by trade, WalkDenver has helped craft the Hancock administration’s Vision Zero plan to end traffic deaths, watchdogged the public agencies responsible for deadly streets, taught Denverites how to go car-lite, and showed people what pedestrian-friendly streets look like with numerous tactical urbanism projects.
Associate Director Jill Locantore will helm the ship until WalkDenver’s advisory board names a new director.
Streetsblog sat down with Kung to reflect on her time with WalkDenver. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why are you leaving?
I think there’s a lot of chapters in WalkDenver that are closing and new ones that are opening. So it’s kind of a logical point of transition. We had some great successes in the past years — our tactical urbanism projects, bringing investments to neighborhoods, the Denveright pedestrian plan, the Vision Zero plan closing and moving toward implementation.
WalkDenver is something I fell into as a result of passion, and really didn’t know what I was getting into. I think a lot of things start by the virtue of ignorance, but running a nonprofit was never a long-term career goal for me. I feel really good about where the organization is and all the accomplishments. I’m really proud of it. I feel like this is a good point to hand it off to somebody who can take it to the next level.
What are you most proud of?
It’s a unique organization, not only on the scale of Denver but in the state of Colorado in the sense that we are solely focusing on walkability. So starting to fill that void in the landscape of advocacy in the state is definitely something I’m very proud of.
When I started there was a lot of bike advocacy, obviously. Bike Denver and Bicycle Colorado were already making progress. And FasTracks was moving forward so there was conversation about transit. But I was shocked to find out nobody was talking about pedestrians. And I think that walking and pedestrians are such an obvious and natural thing. It’s kind of like air and water. We don’t really see it and don’t recognize it as an issue.
Also Better Block Jefferson Park. When we first started these conversations with Denver Public Works in 2012, they looked at us like we had two heads. I mean it was just completely insane. And I think now it’s become institutionalized to the point that the city’s actually doing these intersection paintings to engage citizens as part of Safe Routes to School and data collection.
What are the biggest challenges to making Denver walkable?
I think there’s a lot of systematic inertia — like, “That’s how we’ve always done things” — both in terms of systems, but also people who work on issues for the city. For somebody who’s been a traffic engineer in Public Works for 20 years, and they’ve been reviewing projects and given certain criteria, it’s a big change to all of a sudden start thinking about it from a different perspective. Even the lens of Vision Zero is just a really fundamental change of how we look at safety in terms of designing streets — whose safety we’re considering and what it means for a street to be safe.
There are a lot of policies and planning conversations, but that doesn’t always necessarily translate to implementation. There’s this disconnect between the visionary planning and the actual implementation. And that goes beyond city funding and priorities. It’s ingrained in various city processes.
Why has WalkDenver been so effective?
We’re not gonna try to do everything. And I think that’s kind of a challenge with walking and walkability — that it really kind of touches on everything. To be a pedestrian, you’re a transit rider, land use is important, trees, and there’s so many things you can do. You can do programming, you can take people on walks, you can do a gazillion things. So the challenge, I think, was identifying a focus and staying focused. I think we’ve been kind of intentionally setting goals and then working on them, chipping away.
Where do you want to see the organization one, five, and 20 years from now?
We’re just only starting, just barely scratching the surface. The city’s going to grow, many people are expecting to move here, and at the same time we have values about being diverse and inclusive and not pushing away existing residents. What it means to plan a human-friendly or people-friendly city is really beyond just walkability. I mean, walkability is a common denominator for all these different elements, but it’s land use, it’s transportation, it’s recreation, it’s all those things that we’re setting the goals for, but I don’t know if we necessarily have the tools to implement yet.
I think there’s gonna be a lot of very difficult conversations in Denver — and we’re already seeing them — with displacement, gentrification. How does it all come together? I think there’s an important role for WalkDenver to play in this conversation.
Would that extend to housing issues?
Well I don’t know that we’re gonna become housing advocates, but I think we definitely see partnerships and a need in aligning the policies of land use and transportation policies.
Would you do anything differently, knowing everything you know now?
I don’t know that I’ve had enough time to think about that, because I’m still here. I was thinking yesterday how many people I should really thank. A lot of this work was just done by kind of sheer volume of volunteer hours and asking people to help. Before we were established, before we had funding, before we had paid staff, we were doing a lot of things as just a group of driven volunteers, and still do rely on volunteers.
I would really like to combine the experience I had with WalkDenver with the architectural experience that I’ve had. I will be looking for a job. I’ve been self-employed for 15 years now and it’s wearing on me. I would like a change.