How Boca Raton Councilman Andy Thomson got in shape, cleaned the city, and brought people together

In January 2021, South Florida native and Boca Raton City Councilman Andy Thomson did something most people do: he made a New Year’s resolution to get into better shape by eating better and exercising. For Thomson, it specifically involved running more, an activity he didn’t enjoy much at the time. “I had to figure out a way to become more disciplined about it and have accountability,” he explains.

Around that time, Thomson, who grew up in Coral Springs and has resided in Boca Raton with his wife and children since 2013, participated in a Zoom training about transportation networks and how cities can make their roadways better for them everybody. He recalls seeing a photo of a woman in a wheelchair who had been on the sidewalk, but then the sidewalk just stops. “The poignant point they were trying to make was, ‘What’s this person in a wheelchair supposed to do?'” he recalls. “There’s no sidewalk. She can’t go through the grass, and she’s not supposed to ride on the road. Ultimately, the question the training program posed to elected officials throughout the country was, ‘Where in your cities do you have problems like that?'”

Thomson remembers thinking to himself, “I’m not sure.” He represents the entire city of Boca Raton, which means every roadway and sidewalk is within his jurisdiction. “I’ve driven the roads and know my city pretty well,” he says. “I’ve been on the City Council since 2018. But I didn’t know that answer from a pedestrian’s or someone in a wheelchair’s point of view.”

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He conceived the idea to run all 475 miles of roads in Boca Raton. After crunching the numbers, he figured he could do it if he ran three or four miles a day, several days a week. He wasn’t just going to run for the exercise and the experience of seeing the city differently, although that did happen. “I also wanted to run, clean up the garbage on the streets and the sidewalks, and identify safety improvements, like the sidewalk that came to an abrupt end for the person in the wheelchair, or potholes, or broken sidewalks and missing crosswalks-whatever kind of safety improvement I could see,” Thomson explains.

He learned that when you observe the world from that point of view, you gain a much different perspective at a slower pace than when you drive. As a driver behind the wheel of a vehicle, you don’t notice things at the granular level. However, they stand out in a significant way when you’re out there running.

A few weeks ago, Thomson completed his Run the City initiative. Along with several volunteers, he ran all 475 miles and picked up 1,296.96 pounds of trash. “Boca is already beautiful,” Thomson says. “I almost hate even mentioning how many pounds of trash because it suggests that there’s trash everywhere. It’s just small stuff, but it adds up. And when you’re out running 150 times in the course of the year, you find that a lot of it accumulates. In my case, it ended up being 1,296.96 pounds.”

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In addition to picking up trash, Thomson’s Run the City effort identified 327 safety improvements, predominantly broken sidewalks. “Fixing a broken sidewalk is not going to save the world,” he notes. “But a broken sidewalk can be a problem if you have children who are learning to ride a bike, or if you’re in a wheelchair, or if you’re pushing a stroller.”

For Thomson, the beauty of serving on the City Council meant that he could do something about the safety issues he identified. Most of the problems he discovered have been fixed already, while others are in process. “We’re making admittedly small but meaningful improvements throughout our city just by virtue of seeing it at the ground level like that,” he says.

While Run the City’s trash and safety improvement stats are impressive, one other outcome is even more important in Thomson’s view. “I first started with the big streets like Palmetto Park Road, Glades Road, and Yamato Road,” he explains. “But as I started going into individual neighborhoods, people wanted to join in. They would normally walk, not run, but it created a situation where people started asking to participate in large groups. I would have to make maps for volunteers in groups of 10, 15, and 20. One day, we had over 120 volunteers one day, thanks to parents and students from an elementary school. Over the course of the year, we had volunteers from the hospital, the Junior League, a Boy Scout troop, and the cross country team from one of our local high schools. HOAs would say, ‘You’re gonna complete our neighborhood anyway; the least we can do is help out.’ It became a powerful volunteer experience and community-building exercise over the course of the year for nearly 500 people.”

Unsurprisingly, many have asked Thomson about what he plans to do next. His answer? Run the City 2.0., this time with the goal of picking up less trash because Boca Raton is going to be a cleaner place, thanks to everyone who participated in the first initiative. “I’m looking forward to more volunteers participating so we can bring more people together,” he says.

At the beginning of February, he launched Run the City 2.0. To assist in this second effort, Thomson created a map where people can see what he has already covered and what is left to do. They can sign up to let him know when he’s in their neighborhood, so they can come out and help him. And while there is no requirement for anyone to pick up trash or walk, Thomson views his time running the streets of Boca Raton as a mobile office, enabling him to ask residents about hyperlocal issues affecting their neighborhoods. “Every neighborhood has a hyper-local issue,” he notes. “Some neighborhoods need a traffic light at an intersection because it’s dangerous; others have a nearby park where kids are messing around or issues with the sanitation schedule.

Every neighborhood has some kind of issue. And most of them have solutions the city can help with. So I’ve made a point of saying, ‘Look, no obligation to touch one piece of trash or do anything; just come out and let me know what the city can do better and what you all need.”

Thomson is pleased to report that people have not been shy, enabling him to solve problems and ensure that the local government works for the people. “Folks have appreciated that,” He says. “That’s why I anticipate having a good turnout this next round with Run the City 2.0.”

For more information, visit https://www.andythomson.com/run-the-city/.

Discover more about Andy Thomson here.

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