For over 25 years, Dan Burden has been committed to opening up cities to their residents by making them more bicycle and pedestrian friendly. Along the way, he's been everything from a National Geographic photographer to a Florida Department of Transportation official, as well founder of the non-profit organization Walkable Communities. On Wednesday, September 2, Burden will stop in Savannah to host a public forum discussing ways to make Savannah friendlier to non-automobile traffic. Last week, Connect caught up with Dan by phone to talk about mobility.
What is it that attracted you to the issue of walkability and the issue of creating more pedestrian friendly cities?
Dan Burden: It has been an interest I've had since around 1981. I was in Australia and working on bicycle facilities with them. That was my passion. I was an advocate for increased bicycling. As I would take walks, I realized that Australia was like the America I had grown up in as a kid. It was like an epiphany to me. I realized that what was unique was walking. They were building everything to the scale of the human foot. I came back and changed my job description. I had been the State Bicycle Coordinator for the Florida DOT, and just added on State Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator. From there on out I focused entirely on walking and walkability, and started noticing things that other people weren't seeing. That was the origin. It's almost like once you buy a particular car, you start seeing more of those cars. It sharpened my vision to everything I was seeing related to walking and walkability. I just basically schooled myself in that whole discipline.
Since you came at it from a personal interest, not a formal academic background, what are some of the lessons that you've picked up along the way?
Dan Burden: The big lesson in terms of shaping my vision was that people weren't paying attention to the whole thing. We could talk about how ugly our cities were getting, or how hard it was to try to get from one place to another without using a car, but we never thought about what's the reason for it. By doing this, it allowed me to understand urban design in a way not many others were doing. It really is looking at the same topics that other people are looking at, but looking at them for a different set of solutions.
A couple years ago, Walking Magazine named Savannah its most walkable city, should we just rest on our laurels or is there a need to refine infrastructure and mobility?
Dan Burden: I've been on some teams that have rated cities for walkability, and my big contribution has been getting them to change their formulas so they can make picks that don't embarrass us. Some years they pick towns that have absolutely no downtown, no sidewalks. For example Money Magazine will pick towns in Florida, and I won't name names, but that clearly one would not find it easy to walk anywhere in that town. I think that Savannah, more than most cities, would deserve that title...We need to make sure when we pick a town, we're defining why it's walkable, which parts are walkable and which parts aren't. When we define it correctly then people understand and they say alright, maybe we can't rest on our laurels. Maybe 60% of our town is immensely walkable, 20% is very marginal and the other 20% is not a walkable place at all.
That's certainly the case in Savannah. If you judge us by the historical district alone, you'd be hard pressed to find a nicer place to walk, but when you get to the areas built later than 1920 forget about it. There's no sidewalks, and very little non-automobile mobility.
Dan Burden: Our firm is doing a major work effort on the street design guidelines for Savannah. We did what we call x-rays. We basically show the patterns of various neighborhoods starting at the center working one increment out until you finally get out to the areas where it's not walkable at all. The patterns become very clear. Some of that can be healed, but boy is it gonna take a lot of work.
On your website, walking is mentioned as a way to reduce crime and social problems. Isn't that contrary to how a lot of people feel? Is there a perception that if I'm on foot I'm more likely to get robbed?
Dan Burden: It's contrary to some people's beliefs but those are mythologies. Here is an example. In Vancouver, British Columbia, they've been adding density to their city on purpose for the last 20-22 years. They are now the densest city in North America, and what they have proven is that as you add density - increased walking, cycling and spending time outdoors - it provides the eyes on the street. That's really what chases crime away. When people can no longer commit their crime in secrecy, breaking into cars or whatever the crime might be, the crime does go down. Another really good thing - and this isn't well documented yet, but it probably soon will be - is that when people are locked indoors, the domestic disputes go up. The fact that they don't have good activities outdoors means that their psychological issues go up, and then we get into the kinds of crimes that are personal crimes against known individuals. The more we build a walkable, socially active, socially engaging place, the more we're addressing that type of crime as well. The towns that are the most walkable, for the most part, are the most safe.
A recent study showed that the number of kids who live within a mile of school and who walk to school has been in steady decline since the late 1960s. Is that also something that ties into infrastructure or is that something deeper?
Dan Burden: Yes, it's tied to infrastructure, and yes, it is something deeper. The infrastructure issues are pretty easily understood. When we shut down neighborhood schools as a cost saving measure and move children into a larger, newer school, we're setting the stage as one where a huge number of children are no longer within a comfortable range of getting to school. Placement of the school, that part of the infrastructure, is a huge thing. Neighborhood schools are the keystone of neighborhoods, of everything we believe in feeling we're part of a community...We basically stopped taking a look at the fundamentals of how to build a community, which is typically around a school, instead of a school is the last thought in the process.
Where is your favorite place to walk?
Dan Burden: I love walking in urban places, personally. Savannah is in the top 10, Charleston is probably slightly higher, because there's more going on. Those are definitely two hot spots. When we get to bigger cities, I could walk forever in New York. I love Washington DC. My absolute favorite place to walk is the neighborhood I chose to move to, which is Port Townsend, Washington. It's a very pleasant small town, a waterfront town, and always packed with tourists. I love seeing the new mix of people on a daily basis, but still knowing all my neighbors.
For more info on Dan Burden and Walkable Communities visit www.walkable.org.