Welcome Jessica Vargas!

by Jennifer Addair on September 15, 2016

jessica-vargas

Jessica is WalkDenver’s new Program Coordinator!

WalkDenver is thrilled to announce a new addition to our team! As the new Program Coordinator, Jessica Vargas will support the development and implementation of two programs: Safe Routes to School and a new WalkDenver Citizens’ Academy. Jessica is currently a student in the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program at the University of Colorado Denver and has a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of California San Diego. Jessica now lives in the Baker neighborhood where she enjoys walking and riding her bike around the South Broadway area.  We asked her to share a little bit about herself.

What did you do prior to joining WalkDenver?

I worked as an intern for the City of Lakewood Planning Department. As part of their Development Assistance division, I was able to learn so much more about zoning and the development process. The team is very conscious of how each new development will contribute to the City’s overall livability and sustainability. I was also able to meet so many Lakewood residents who cared about their city and deepen my own understanding about planning in the process.

How did you become interested in walkability and pedestrian planning?

I first became interested in sustainable transportation through an introductory course on urban planning as part of my Environmental Studies minor at UCSD. At the time, I had just moved to the more urban San Diego neighborhood of North Park. It was the first time I was able to live in a community where I could walk to the grocery store, restaurants, and even the San Diego Zoo! After graduation, I was able to combine my interests in transportation issues and community organizing as an intern for a bicycle advocacy nonprofit in my hometown of Los Angeles. We often partnered with other bicycle and pedestrian advocacy nonprofits committed to making LA a safer, healthier place to walk and bike.

What drew you to Denver?

After spending all my life in Southern California, I decided to apply for graduate school out of state. Because I wanted to study transportation planning, I knew I wanted to live in a city where I didn’t have to use my car all the time. Coming from one of the most diverse regions in the country, I also wanted to move to a city where I could still find some of the comforts of home (i.e., good Mexican food). After visiting the UCD College of Architecture and Planning campus, I was impressed by its downtown location and great access to public transportation and bike lanes. My sister and I were able to spend a whole weekend exploring different parts of Denver without ever having to rent a car or look for parking. She enjoyed Denver so much that she moved out here a year after I did! We are lucky to live in a walkable neighborhood that is close to each of our jobs and schools so our lifestyle has become very car-lite since moving here.

What excites you most about your new job?

I get to come in to the office and work with people who are as passionate about sustainable transportation as I am! The two projects I will be working on, Safe Routes to School and a new Citizens’ Planning Academy, are such great opportunities to encourage walkability and active transportation in Denver regardless of a person’s age or skill level. Everyone deserves the chance to live a healthier lifestyle in a safe environment and I’m excited to meet residents who want to get involved in making their neighborhoods and schools more walkable.

I will also have the chance to strengthen my Spanish and make my abuelitas very proud. Like many first-generation Latin Americans, Spanish was my first language but English became the primary language in our house when we started school. I understand the importance of communicating in the language that people feel the most comfortable speaking and am excited to work with Denver’s Spanish-speaking communities to create safe environments for their kids to improve their health, explore their neighborhoods, and just be kids. My mom was born in Mexico and grew up in an East LA neighborhood made up mostly of Mexican and Central American immigrants while my dad was born and raised in a small town in Belize. Both of them have told me about how they used to walk to school and ride bikes with friends. They played in the street and knew their neighbors while gaining a sense of independence that can’t be achieved when children and their families have to rely on a car to go anywhere.

Residents of urban neighborhoods like the one my mom grew up in often face additional challenges when it comes to transportation. The cost of maintaining one or more cars often limits access to them while rides on public transit can also add up. Walking is often the cheapest mode of transportation but poor sidewalk maintenance, fast-moving traffic, or a major lack of any pedestrian infrastructure can also make it the most dangerous. But I also know for a fact that Latinos take great pride in their neighborhoods and are determined to create safe and vibrant spaces for their familias. I am proud and honored that I get to be a part of that process.

What is your first impression of the biggest challenges and opportunities related to walkability in Denver?

Sidewalks! A lack of safe sidewalks (and crosswalks) is probably the first and biggest obstacle many residents face in trying to incorporate more walking into their lives. Whether it’s to get to school, the store, or the bus stop, or even just take a nice stroll in the neighborhood, good sidewalks are crucial to getting more people outside.

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

As an undergrad, I spent a summer semester in Amsterdam. I know most people think of bicycles when they think of getting around Amsterdam but I didn’t know how to ride a bike back then! I walked or took the tram everywhere and there was always something to see around every corner. You never had to walk very far to find a cozy sidewalk café, locally-owned shop, or lively beer garden. The center of Amsterdam is so beautiful and very flat so it is just as easy to navigate on foot as it is on a bike. It was a great experience being able to enjoy a place where people from all over the world could live, work, and visit because the city has refused to let cars take over its historic core.

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

Realizing I didn’t know my city as well as I thought I did! When I moved back to LA, I started walking around neighborhoods I would normally have driven around and found so many good restaurants, shops, and interesting buildings that I had never noticed while driving by in my car. I had traveled down those streets for over 20 years but walking gave me an entirely new perspective on a place I thought I knew so well.

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

I’m thankful for this opportunity to work with such motivated people and ready to get started!

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