Improving Towns One Walk at a Time

Throughout the year, even yesterday, my birthday, I get together with residents and leaders of communities to do something that is too rare these days: walk. And not just to walk for fun, but to help people see their streets through a new lens, one that focuses on how street design either supports or discourages active living and active transportation.

Usually during these “walking audits,” as we call them, curious motorists gawk at the strange sight of people actually – gasp! – walking. The walkers’ bright, reflective vests tend to draw attention, too. But when the people walking go to cross a street, the people driving usually do something they’re not inclined to do in their busy lives: they wait for them. It’s a sign that things can still work as intended and that people in cars, people walking and people on bikes can still share space in a civil manner.

From tiny, rural communities to our nation’s largest cities, walking or using any form of active transportation has become challenging. In the process of building our environment for motorized vehicles, we also engineered activity out of our daily lives. By doing so, we’ve driven our health, sense of community and local economies to the brink of ruin. I’m an eternal optimist, though. I know that we can and will do better.

As I travel to all types of towns throughout North America, I find that the most vibrant and successful communities have something in common: they rally behind a common vision, set a strategic plan and then act together to make their streets for people.

  • Denver did this with a transit mall and by reclaiming its historic buildings.
  • Portland, Ore., did it by replacing freeways and parking garages with parks and hearty town centers.
  • The people of North Little Rock, Ark. trusted the mayor and city council to bring Main Street to life and then infused their town with stadiums, parks, a replenished main street and trails.
  • Chattanooga, Tenn. went from America’s dirtiest town to its cleanest, built on the belief that it could do better.
  • In Fairhope, Ala., just last week, the town invested in people first by ensuring the paint they’re putting down on dozens of streets is put in the right places, in configurations that support people walking and biking, as well as using cars.

By rallying behind a unified vision, each of these communities is doing what they set out to do. They give me hope for the entire country. As more and more towns focus on people first, they will have to exhibit courage, take some risks and try new design tools, like road diets, lower vehicle speeds in downtowns, and modern roundabouts, among others.

But when residents, advocates, town staff and business leaders stand shoulder to shoulder with elected officials and place a human being, not the car, at the center of the design scale, we all will become healthier, happier, better connected and more prosperous. And on this, the day after my 68th birthday, these are the successes I look forward to celebrating.

Dan Burden is the executive director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute.