Introducing Denver’s New Pedestrian Planner!

by Jennifer Addair on August 24, 2016

David PulsipherWalkDenver is very excited to help introduce the City and County of Denver’s first-ever full-time Pedestrian Planner, David Pulsipher! David is joining Denver Public Works in support of Denver Moves: Pedestrians and Trails, and we can’t wait to see how his passion for pedestrian matters and planning expertise help to advance walking and pedestrian safety in the Mile High City. WalkDenver’s Gosia Kung and Jill Locantore recently sat down with David to learn about his background, what inspires him, and the opportunities he sees for pedestrians in Denver.

What did you do prior to joining Denver Public Works? 

Before coming to Denver Public Works, I worked for the Chicago Department of Transportation. In Chicago, I was the project manager for the Mayor’s Child Safety Zone Program. This program prioritized pedestrian infrastructure improvements in Chicago’s 1500 parks and schools. Prior to CDOT (the “other” CDOT), I worked as a consultant for Alta Planning + Design. At Alta I worked on numerous multi-modal transportation plans throughout the western United States.

How did you become interested in walkability and pedestrian planning?

After graduating from CU-Boulder, I worked in Downtown Denver for a communications consulting firm. I lived in the Cheesman Park area with my brothers, and given the proximity to work, it seemed silly to drive to work. Every day I walked down 14th, or 13th, or Colfax even… depending on the day and my mood. It became one of the highlights of my day. I loved that I could think about what I wanted to do that day, and then after work, reflect on what I needed to do for the next day. It was my time to think without other distractions. After walking to work for two years in Denver, I moved to Washington D.C. I lived just several blocks off King Street in Alexandria, a major commercial district with excellent walkability. I could walk to the train station, the grocery store, parks, everything I wanted. It was amazing. Having these experiences coincided with having an unreliable car, and I ended up resenting any time I spent in the car, or money I spent on it. Walking represented freedom to me. One day I wondered aloud to a co-worker, “You know what I want to do, I want to make it easier for people to walk and bike places.” My co-worker said, “oh, you want to be an urban planner!” I had never heard of this field before, but it was a revelation to me. I quickly started studying the field and shortly thereafter applied to graduate programs. I started my graduate degree at UCLA in Urban Planning, and the rest is history.

What drew you to Denver?

I grew up in Aurora, and loved going to Denver as a child and as a teenager. It was the “big city.” My father grew up in Denver, and I had incredibly fond memories of visiting my Grandparents who lived on the Northwest corner of Washington Park on Virginia & Downing. When I was in college at Boulder, I loved taking my out-of-state friends to cool places in Denver that my parents had shown me. Denver has always had a warmth and familiarity to me, and has always felt like home. After college – living in Denver was the first time I had actually lived in a city. I loved living in a place where I could access parks, movies, concerts, food – all by foot. When I left Denver in 2005 I didn’t realize how long it would take me to get back. Prior to working for Public Works, I had been actively looking to get to Denver for the past eight years. I couldn’t be happier to be back and feel incredibly honored to have the position I do.

What excites you most about your new job?

The work environment at Public Works is fantastic. Everyone I have met “gets it.” I’m surrounded by incredibly brilliant, progressive, and hard-working people and it is inspiring to work with them. I feel motivated and empowered to bring the absolute best solution to every problem.

How do you think the walkabilty of Denver compares to the other cities you’ve lived and/or worked in? What is your first impression of the biggest challenges and opportunities related to walkability in Denver?

I would say – comparable. Every big city I’ve lived in (Washington DC, Los Angeles, Chicago) has its challenges and opportunities for improvement. The western US has challenges that are more prevalent than the Eastern US, in that we just have so much more space. We haven’t been forced into density, and we have a greater proportion of roadways that were designed for the car first, as opposed to being retrofitted for car use. Wide, high volume roads are obviously one of the primary obstacles to the pedestrian environment. That being said, often times roads that are designed for high volume can often present the biggest opportunities, symbolically. When a city redistributes right of way for pedestrians, transit users, or bicyclists, it reflects the values of the city and an understanding that multi-modal planning is the future of transportation in the US. I see that very clearly in Denver.

My first impression of the biggest challenge facing Denver – is providing a complete pedestrian network. We are a big city, geographically. So for pedestrians, that is a challenge. We need a robust pedestrian network that connects us to school, work, transportation, and recreation. Being a large western city and providing superior pedestrian infrastructure citywide is a big opportunity. I want to help Denver be an example on that front.

What are some big ideas from other cities you’ve lived and/or worked in that you think we could implement here?

In a big picture sense, I really liked how in Chicago we used data as the foundation for prioritizing improvements. This added a lot of transparency to our projects – and even though some of the public may have felt like the way we calculated (weighting, specific data points) could be modified, at least they could understand where we were coming from. It takes a lot of the mystery out of infrastructure development. That is something I’d like to bring to Denver –  a transparent and data driven approach to project prioritization.

What’s the best place you’ve ever walked?

In my early twenties I lived and walked throughout most of Yorkshire, Northern England. Aside from it being breathtakingly beautiful, it was also an incredible place to walk. I was doing missionary service for my church there, and our only way of getting around was the bus or our legs. Some of the villages northwest of Leeds are incredible for walking (think Downton Abbey!). The age and layout of these villages clearly pre-dates the car, and they have made very little effort at the town/village level to cater to cars. Pedestrians are number one. Almost all of the roads are two lanes at best, and often one lane (both directions! So cars have to pull over and yield for each other). The small roads make it very easy to navigate, and everything in the villages has remained human scale. Signage, sidewalks, crosswalks, and pedestrian infrastructure are abundant. It is easiest to get to the pub, the market, to the bus, or to school, by foot. Because pedestrian movements have been prioritized despite the introduction of cars, walking is most people’s way of getting to where they needed to go. This meant that you saw your neighbors, friends, and co-workers several times throughout the day. I loved this aspect of English culture and found that it led to what Robert Putnam called in his book, “Better Together” – stratification. The fact that the built environment allows you to connect with your neighbors multiple times a day, making for stronger communities. Contrast that to many American neighborhoods where you get in your car inside your garage, drive to work and park in the parking garage only to reverse the trip at the end of the day and not talk to anyone. Walking in northern England is lovely.

What’s the strangest/most interesting thing that’s ever happened to you while walking?

That is a really fun question to think about! I’ve definitely had some strange “Did I just see that” type of things… but one of my favorite walking related memories was when I was in the Governors Park area several years ago. My brothers and I were going out to eat at Benny’s. We were about a block away when all of the sudden I saw my German teacher from middle school, Frau Freeman. It had been about 15 years since I was in middle school, and back then I was less studious and a little more of the “class clown” variety. We got to choose our “German” names, and I picked Wolfgang.

As soon as Frau Freeman saw me, she exclaimed “Wolfgang!” My brothers looked around, wondering who this woman was talking too. It was so funny, and so sweet at the same time. We had a quick chat wherein I apologized for being unruly but she kindly denied it, saying I was always a good student. It was a warm interaction and once again affirmed my love for walking, in that it opens you up to experiences that are only possible when you are out, in the city.

Anything else you’d like to share with WalkDenver’s supporters?

Hi WalkDenver Supporters! I am so excited to be in Denver and work toward making it a world-class city for pedestrians. I look forward to meeting you and working together with you. If you ever have any questions, ideas, or concerns please don’t hesitate to contact me at David.Pulsipher@denvergov.org.

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