What is 8 80 Cities and what does it have to do with the workforce and economic development? On Jan. 24, the Downtown Partnership presented Gil Penalosa, founder of the non-profit organization 8 80 Cities. Based in Canada, 8 80 Cities was created on this philosophy: If you create a great city for an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old, you will create a successful city for all people.

I had the opportunity to interview Penalosa. He is dedicated to transforming cities and helping civic innovators make their communities vibrant places where people can walk, bike and access better transit options for commuting and recreation. His zeal for this work was inspired by his mother, a landscape gardener, and his father’s passion for the public sector.

He stressed every city should have a law of two words: Pedestrians first.

Prior to his presentation, Penalosa walked our downtown and explored several parks and neighborhoods and incorporated local photos into his presentation. He noted the wide downtown streets are easily and economically suited  for protected bike lanes.

“Streets are tax-supported public spaces that ultimately belong to the citizens,” he said, sharing examples of cities that have closed streets to motorized vehicles on weekends and/or holidays to be used for walking and biking. Add some portable benches and potted trees and you suddenly have a “pop-up park.”

While here, Penalosa also met with two Colorado College classes, a group of 12 city staffers and attended a private reception that included city council members, city and county employees, Mayor John Suthers, leaders from the business and nonprofit sectors, and local parks and trails advocates to better understand our community and provide ideas for us to consider such as:

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• There is a distinction between “park management” vs “park maintenance.” Cities must manage their parks, not merely maintain them.

• Change is never unanimous — the general interest of the community must be the top priority as opposed the desires of “CAVE people” -— citizens against virtually everything.

• City planners should listen carefully for the wheels that don’t squeak, for they represent the gentle majority — children, the poor and the elderly — growing demographics in our community.

• If you say no to a new idea, you are also saying yes to the status quo.

So, what does this have to do with our workforce and economic development?  For Penalosa, it is a straight line.

“Investing in infrastructure is investing in a community’s quality of life which directly supports economic development. Businesses, skilled employees of all ages and engaged citizens are attracted to an 8 80 city,” he said, citing Portland, Ore., as a community that puts pedestrians first. The city’s strategy grew from a philosophy that saw streets as commodities resulting in a different perspective on competition based on viewing the entire street as a product.

One of the business owners said, “Every great restaurant that comes to the street, food carts that come to the street, great retail that comes to the street — that creates a guaranteed flow of walking traffic. The street itself is a commodity that people come to.”

Considering his experience working with cities around the world, regarding “low-hanging fruit” in Colorado Springs, Penalosa shared these thoughts:

• Link the Old North End and downtown with a protected bike lane.

• Consider piloting free bus rides for a year (or some other period) to increase comfort levels with public transportation. Penalosa said there would be an immediate return on investment as more people use public transportation once fares resume.

• Identify walking as a No. 1 priority on all community planning lists.

• Consider a massive economic development public relations campaign to change the local mindset from a focus on motorized vehicles to walking and biking.

• Test out the concept of “Pop Up Parks” somewhere in the city.

Finally, as board chair of the Colorado Springs Health Foundation, I was eager to hear his thoughts on the role of philanthropy in the effort to make our community a great place for 8- and 80-year-olds.

Noting that the public sector has limited resources,  Penalosa said, “Philanthropists and foundations should put their money toward things that are more risky than safe. Fund some big ideas to test them out. Some will work, some won’t, but this strategy is the best way to partner with and support government.”

As we all work in our community, it may be helpful to see a special 8-year-old or 80-year-old in our minds’ eyes and consider how our decisions will impact them.

B.J. Scott, an advocate for age-friendly workplaces, is the former CEO of Peak Vista Community Health Centers and its foundation. She can be reached at bjscott2325@gmail.com.