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If you’re on TikTok, you may have already seen Jonathon Stalls, 39, filming his strolls around Denver. His account, @PedestrianDignity, has gathered nearly 70,000 followers since his first post this past June. He uses it to highlight the hazards, embarrassment, and exposure Denver pedestrians face every day. Lately, some of his videos have even racked up close to 350,000 views. It’s no wonder. Denver’s sidewalk infrastructure is literally crumbling beneath our feet.
As someone who no longer drives a car (thanks Denver parking costs), I meet Stalls near Johnson and Wales University, just a few blocks from a bus stop on Colfax Avenue. The sidewalk that runs alongside Quebec Street from Colfax to the university campus is cracked at best, and completely nonexistent at worst. Before I greet Stalls, a 14,000-pound box truck roars past me as I struggle to keep my footing on the slippery dirt and rocks on the side of the road.
“This is exactly why I’m so vocal about this,” Stalls says. “Anybody that’s moving by foot or by wheelchair as their primary form [of transportation], is left to the whims of high speed traffic, snowstorms, and rain.”
Stalls describes himself as a full-time “walking artist”—he leads meditation and creates visual art from his saunters in urban and rural areas. Starting in 2012, Stalls began guiding guests through this form of artistic exploration, during which he shares the struggles of pedestrian life. But in the fall of 2019, while leading a tour through the Ruby Hill neighborhood, a teenage girl approached him. She encouraged Stalls to start a TikTok account so that he could share his views on pedestrian dignity with a wider audience. “I can barely figure out Instagram,” he says, chuckling at the idea.
But the advice stuck in his mind. This past summer, he gave in to the nagging thought and started his TikTok account. His videos were an immediate hit—his first post received 100,000 views. One video shows a sidewalk simply end and become a hilly grassy field, while another highlights what Stalls calls a “concrete wasteland”—a stretch of Colorado Boulevard near I-25 that features a cracked sidewalk directly next to the busy road.
The comment threads on Stalls’ videos show he’s not alone: “This is so isolating and ugly and it’s what so much of America looks like,” one user writes. “You inspired me to go for a walk. I never noticed how bad it was… the sidewalk just stopped,” another user comments.
Denver officials say the change is coming. The Neighborhood Sidewalk Repair Program (NSRP) launched in August 2018 to address the existing sidewalks that are damaged. Unfortunately, many of the cracked and nonexistent sidewalks are part of private property—which means the owner of the land is responsible for any fixes. To get repairs underway, the NSRP offers repayment assistance and discounts to single family homes who meet a certain income threshold. It also provides a repayment plan of over three years so that owners can pay for sidewalk repairs in installments over time.
Furthermore, the program was suspended last year due to the economic impact of COVID-19. “We’re looking at making changes to the program with the goal of streamlining processes to speed up the results,” says Nancy Kuhn, public information officer for Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure. “This includes getting a contractor on board to do a citywide sidewalk assessment.”
Despite the suspension of the NSRP, the city has also launched a sidewalk gap program, meant to build new sidewalks where the concrete is missing. The project is funded by the Elevate Denver Bond, which provides $31 million for city sidewalk infrastructure. Nine miles of sidewalk were installed in 2020, and the city anticipates an extra nine miles to be installed by the end of 2021.
But many feel it’s too little, too late. “There’s just not enough going to fund pedestrian infrastructure,” Stalls says. “Quebec, Alameda, Colorado Boulevard, Sheridan. Those need to be improved first. These are streets that people depend on to get to the grocery store. We need more pressure, we need to get louder.”
Just as Stalls and I make our way back toward Colfax, a rare but powerful Colorado downpour hits us. As I scurry to find shelter at the bus stop, Stalls makes his way into the rain, whips out his cell phone, and starts to record. “All elements, all conditions, all seasons,” Stalls says in his video. “Diagonal nonsense ramps leading all into the chaos of right turning traffic and puddles.”
After filming his latest addition to this account, Stalls joins me back at the bus stop, where we stand beneath one of Denver’s new bus shelters, part of the city’s 15L Improvement Project. The shelter has a slanted top which helps reroute the rain from hitting the bench. However, it only has two barriers on either side—meaning that the rain is still hammering down on us from the front and back.
“It’s something, but it’s not enough,” Stalls says as vehicles zipdown Colfax splashing freezing rainwater on us and puddles begin to accumulate. “To change systems we need to get creative around storytelling. I hope these videos reach decision makers.”
For those looking to get involved with sidewalk advocacy, Stalls recommends signing up for the Denver Deserves Sidewalks campaign by Denver Streets Partnership.