Neighbors in NYC Hike Through Parks and Chart Their Own Way Forward

Right now, Hike the Heights is raising funds to celebrate their 19th annual event, a community hike and celebration in Northern Manhattan parks. The family-friendly event, taking place on June 3, invites New Yorkers to explore and celebrate their city’s natural treasures by combining physical activity, art, fun, and civic participation. It also helps ensure that NYC parks are safe and accessible to all. Since 2011, the Hike the Heights team has enlisted ioby to help them fundraise and receive grants. 

We spoke with Angela Allard, a Hike the Hikes organizer of nearly 10 years, about the purpose and power of Hike the Heights, the event’s evolution over time, and the value ioby and crowdfunding have brought to the project over the years.

What are the origins of Hike the Heights? 

The initiative started with two professors at Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. From working with the community, they identified an array of issues that were impacting public health, including the violence that often accompanies underinvested public spaces. Public spaces, especially in neighborhoods in Northern Manhattan, were under invested for some time. When there are less beautiful places for people to engage in civic, social, and physical activity, there isn’t space for people to address issues and overcome certain barriers that they might have in their neighborhood because of these broader social issues.

The professors who started the program began speaking with other community organizations and residents to build a coalition around acquiring more funding for Highbridge Park in Northern Manhattan. The park sat between two large neighborhoods in uptown Manhattan: Harlem and Washington Heights. The idea was to bring more attention and resources to that park by activating the public space with people from the community. In order to do that, the community had to feel like the parks that were in their own backyard were places that they would want to come to with their family and friends.

Can you explain what is involved in the event itself?

While doing this work, the organizers identified numerous parks across the area that were also being underutilized and unengaged. They wanted a way to bring attention to all of them, so they decided to create a hiking path where participants could experience all of the parks in a single day. These parks are sprinkled across uptown Manhattan, but when you look at them on the map, they form the shape of a giraffe head. They decided to name the walk the “giraffe path” as a result, so the giraffe has been an essential part of the event ever since!  

The hike takes participants through several parks, but ultimately culminates in a large event in Edgecombe Park where folks gather in celebration. We really view the event as a “community potluck,” because it involves everyone contributing in their own way. Some may pass out flyers to spread the word, while others donate water bottles or tables, but everyone is bringing their own contribution to make it all happen.

At what point did you decide to work with ioby and what were the results?

One of the key reasons we first turned to ioby is because we needed a fiscal sponsor. We’re not a non-profit. We’re a group of people coming together in our time outside of work to help run this special event. Because we’re not a non-profit and lack 501c3 status, it’s a constant struggle to secure funding. We managed to get a microgrant here and there, but we really needed a fiscal sponsor to be able to raise the funds we needed to make change in our neighborhood. 

ioby was unique in being able to fiscally sponsor us, but they also were unique in their focus on community work and local projects. We had similar missions, which also offered us a lot of credibility when we began our crowdfunding process. Our campaigns have always existed alongside other projects that are happening in the community, and we think it’s important to shine a light on all of the work taking place so we build each other up along the way. 

Participants gather to paint a giraffe head, which will be used to lead the group during the hike

Your 19th annual hike is taking place this June! What are some ways your work has grown and evolved over the years?

Yes, this year the celebration is taking place on June 3, so our ioby campaign for that project is actively accepting donations. 

As you might imagine, a lot of change has occurred over the last 19 years. We’ve seen an increasing number of community members and community organizations participate every year, so it’s been great to see the real impact of the change we’re bringing on that level. 

There were also leadership changes we had to work through. When the professors who originally started the event left Columbia University back in 2018 , there were a lot of questions around if things would continue. People from the community quickly stepped up to say “we want this to keep going!” A lot of people look forward to this event every year. It’s a way for us to connect to each other and other organizations doing similar work to ours. Year after year, we’ve seen the community step up and continue to lead, even in moments where our future was uncertain.

I think that speaks to the value of Hike the Heights. People still want to continue working on it. It’s something the community members asked for and look forward to because it really is an event that is about placemaking and community ownership. It speaks to the need for more spaces and platforms for community members and organizations to come together, connect, and do things together.

Neighbors hiking together on the day of the event

What’s some advice you would share with any current or future ioby project leaders?

My advice would be to always keep meeting each other, networking, and connecting! It’s important to continue that outside of the project as well because maintaining those connections, at least for Hike the Heights, has allowed us to continue our work even during our transition periods. We’ve maintained connections over a long time and they’re very warm connections! It doesn’t have to be formal, it’s person-to-person, neighbor-to-neighbor.

Coalition-building and connecting with organizations who care about the same things that you do can happen all the time, it doesn’t necessarily have to be around a project. Fostering more relationships and connections with both community organizations in your neighborhood and the residents is essential. Make sure your neighbors and residents are connecting with those organizations so there’s trust-building happening! I think that’s the key to the sustainability of these types of projects, it’s the trust that naturally gets built when you’re connecting with people.

ioby is a national crowdfunding nonprofit, but we’re much more than that. We help connect leaders (like you!) with one-on-one coaching and support to raise the money they need from their communities to make our neighborhoods safer, greener, more livable, and more fun.

Have a great idea to get good done in your neighborhood? We want to help! Share your idea with us and we can help get you started.