Who exactly is Dan Burden and why is he going for a walk with us here in downtown Worcester? Dan is not an engineer. Dan is not even a professionally trained urban planner, architect or designer. So, who is Dan Burden and why are cities all across the country asking him to give advice on how to design walkable, livable urban streets? As a former professional photographer for National Geographic Magazine, Dan developed a keen eye that has been able to observe what makes a city thrive. He has traveled to cities around the world and even made a solo bike trek from Alaska to Argentina. As the founder of Walkable Communities, a non-profit dedicated to promoting urban walkability, he rarely slows down now, visiting cities across the country to design streets for people and not just for cars.
Dan was here in Worcester as the keynote speaker for the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance conference on June 2nd. Several hundred community developers, planners and activists across the state, interested in everything from housing, environmental justice, economic development descended on our city to explore ideas of how to prevent suburban sprawl and create densely compact, walkable and lively Massachusetts cities. Dan stayed the next day to do a walking audit with us locals and other conference goers.
Here are three interesting tidbits gleaned from this conference:
1) Baby boomers may have yearned for the suburbs and the freedom of roads and cars but millennials are different. Freedom is not owning a car and living in a city where one can get to work, home, the grocery store, bar and restaurant on foot, bike or public transportation. The good place to live for millennials has plenty of nightlife, street life, culture and activity. For this generation, it is a status symbol not to own a car.
2) Studies have shown that longevity and health is closely tied to the nature of the built environment. Those who are the healthiest tend to live in communities where every place they need to be (home, work, shop, worship) is within a one mile radius. Think about your own life. Can you go within a mile to find everything you need or do you have to get in a car to commute?
3) This shift in interest to walkable, dense urban spaces has resulted in a high demand for real city living and consequently higher prices for housing in once- abandoned urban cores. In quickly gentrifiying neighborhoods, bodegas are being replaced by yoga studios, mom and pop corner stores by fancy juice bars. Boston is struggling with this now. Worcester is not as of now but how can we assure that Worcester and other cities maintain affordability for the residents who are already here?
Look at the two pictures below. The buildings in one work well to provide "eyes on the street" and the buildings in the other photo don't. Can you guess which one and why?
The buildings on the left DON'T function well. See that there are no windows on the upper floors that are welcoming to the people who are walking there. Compare that to the older building stock in the photo on the right. Look at all the windows on all the floors creating a friendly, transparent street where people feel more secure.
Now a word about parking and parking garages: Worcester has retrofitted most of our downtown for cars. Dan asked how much a monthly parking space cost downtown. The answer is $80 - $120 a month for a parking space during work hours. In truly vibrant downtowns, monthly parking spaces can go up to $600. Don't give away parking!! What cities need to do is capture the motorists on the outer edges of the downtown. People park on the outer edges encouraging walking and the use of alternative transportation (buses, bikes). Think about it! We should stop creating parking lots with every new development or taking out our existing infrastructure for parking especially in areas we want to be walkable and vibrant.
These buildings at the corner of Main and Pleasant Streets work well for the street. Notice the rounded corners and lettering of the Harrington Corner. The wall of windows and the diagonal line triangulating the sidewalk of the modern building diagonally across the street make an interesting walk-pass.