Sunday, December 13, 2015

Dan Burden on sidewalks and the future

Dan Burden at CSPS Hall
 I would never walk. I would take a car.

Dan Burden of Blue Zones praised both sidewalks and the City of Cedar Rapids's plans to include them in development in a talk at CSPS Hall last week. Burden, director of innovation and inspiration for Blue Zones, talked up both the social and economic benefits of complete streets, which he said "address all the needs of all the people all the time" instead of focusing exclusively on efficient flow of automobile traffic.

Burden said modifying the streetscape was an essential element of Blue Zones' efforts in Albert Lea, Minnesota, which helped bring about dramatic improvements in health spending and work productivity. Economically, he argued complete streets produce 4-5 times the revenue per square foot than auto-oriented streets; add value to homes at several times the cost of constructing a sidewalk and planting street trees; and, with more compact development provide more efficient use of city services such as the fire department. Socially, walkability addresses a basic human impulse: Walking, he says, is the first thing an infant wants to do on its own, and the last thing an older person wants to give up. It gives everyone a chance to exercise and meet more people, allows elders to age in place independently, and sustains the quality of neighborhoods.

Sidewalks are, of course, not an end in themselves but a means to an end, and should be pursued with an eye towards cost-effectiveness as well as "completing the system." That means intentionally constructing a network of sidewalks in places with the potential of generating "places to go to." He showed a poignant picture of the sidewalk in front of his childhood home, which his father had built himself. Neither their neighbors nor their city took it from there, though, and it remains, seven decades later, a very short stub of cement in front of one house. Effective sidewalks connect people and destinations, with "eyes on the sidewalk" along the way (i.e. windows not garages or fences). They make for a smaller life radius, defined as the area where 90 percent of the things you do are found. (In traditional urban development, this might be a mile or two, so accessible multiple ways including walking; in suburban sprawl, several dozen miles, so accessible only by car.)

Burden, joined by city staff in a question-and-answer session after the talk, stayed positive and general, as befits an inspirational speaker. But we missed an opportunity to engage the crux of the sidewalk construction issue when an audience member questioned plans to extend the sidewalk along the south side of Grande Ave SE. (I live near there and know the speaker, but will leave it to him to identify himself if he chooses.) Grande runs for about a mile, beginning at 16th Street in Wellington Heights, through some quite toney blocks, and terminating in Bever Park. The sidewalk along the north side runs the entire route; on the south side it ends at 21st Street, about halfway along. This year, a city proposal to build the rest of the sidewalk met with near-unanimous opposition from homeowners on both sides of the street. The speaker argued the added sidewalk would be redundant, given the existing sidewalk along the north side of Grande, but mostly that it would be "disruptive."

Residents on Chandler Street SW, which leads to Jefferson High School,
are fighting city plans to build sidewalks (Bing maps)
It's an important reminder that the case for walkable cities, and for sidewalks as a means of walkability, is far from being a slam dunk. Not everyone wants to meet more people, or to live in a connected community, or not to rely on their car(s) to take them everywhere they need to go. Burden is in my view absolutely right when he says "an uncertain future will require more collaboration than we're used to," but not everyone believes that or wants to believe that. This particular speaker is in his 80s, but even people my age and younger believe primarily in the suburban values of beauty, privacy and security (made famous in the Chicagoland of my youth by the Tru-Link Fence Company). There are fiscal. environmental, social and soulful reasons for backing off on those suburban values, but to say the least some people remain unimpressed. How can such mindsets be reached, much less convinced of the desirability of building connected communities? Will developing successful examples, to the extent it's politically feasible, help?

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