Building Healthier Places That Reflect Our Values: A Conversation with Dan Burden of Blue Zones


Building in the historic town form of 100 years ago and further back is always going to give you the best result, the healthiest result, the most resilient result, and the greatest return on resources.
— Dan Burden

Dan Burden has been called “the Johnny Appleseed of pedestrian and bike design" and not for nothing. Burden has been a pioneer in innovative transportation planning for over 40 years. He served as Florida's first state bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, co-founded Walkable Communities, Inc., and today is the Director of Innovation and Inspiration at Blue Zones. For his accomplishments, he was recently named #58 on Planetizen’s list of the 100 Most Influential Urbanists of all time.

Blue Zones is a multifaceted organization that works to help people live longer, better lives by improving their environment. It’s named after a term which refers to regions of the world in which longevity and a high quality of life in old age are the norm. Burden is an expert on how our neighborhoods—and the choices we make about their design—affect our health.

Dan Burden was our featured guest on the September 2019 edition of Ask Strong Towns, a live ask-me-anything webcast for Strong Towns members. We’re pleased to share the webcast video with you here. 

Questions Addressed in This Webcast

4:25What are Blue Zones?

8:20 In North America, the prevalent development pattern consists of automobile-dominated spaces. If I feel the place outside my door is just not designed for me, where do I even get started in transforming that environment into something healthy?

10:35How does equity play into your work? How does it apply in poor places, where biking and walking is not a recreational activity but a necessity?

12:40 A lot of our public spaces are designed for the people passing through them, not for those who live there. How do you approach environments like that? Do you start with values or with design principles?

15:05 What's the matter with modernism? Where have we gone wrong in the past century that the places we live in have become so disconnected from our values?

18:45 Increasingly, we see big, expensive "complete streets" infrastructure—like a fancy bike bridge over a stroad—used as an alternative to actually fundamentally redesigning the stroad. How do you respond to such scenarios?

20:55How do you nurture public support for walking / biking infrastructure investment in places where people claim those facilities won't be used because of weather? ("People don't walk in [cold/hot] climates.")

23:05Where is the legal profession when we design streets that are inherently dangerous for whole classes of users? Why aren't cities getting sued for negligent design?

27:45 Our approach to children's safety in the U.S. is often to talk about "more armor, more padding, better car seats, bigger cars." How is the conversation about children's safety different in Europe, and what do you do here to shift it in a different direction?

32:10How important is bike parking to encouraging biking in cities?

34:05 How do electric micro-mobility options (scooters, e-bikes, etc.) fit into a Blue Zones vision?

36:30How do you respond to the argument that we must accommodate automobiles everywhere for the sake of people with disabilities?

40:05 Funds for ADA compliance or complete streets are often misused on facilities in places nobody would be on foot, instead of improving real people's real experiences. How would we get to a world with more operational flexibility to spend money where it produces the greatest return?

45:20How do we get state DOTs to be out in the community and do real engagement, instead of defaulting to their priorities of traffic volume and traffic flow?

49:50 What do you think of the Strong Towns contention that engineers should not design streets?

52:15 How possible and promising is suburban retrofit for addressing the problems we're discussing? 54:10 — What is your reaction to the prospect of the Great Inversion—that as urban living regains popularity, the poor will be pushed to the most car-dependent environments that are the least safe and hospitable? How do we build "oases" in suburbia?

57:00What do you think of tactical urbanism? Is it an effort to sidestep public engagement, or a valuable part of public engagement?

The places that are easiest for us to rescue are the ones that didn’t have enough money to go and do the stupid things.
— Dan Burden

Cover photo via Michigan Municipal League on Flickr. Creative Commons license.