by Jeremy Morrison
Wearing a reflective yellow vest and wielding a tape measure, Dan Burden paused to look up and down Palafox Street. The group of people following him pause as well, awaiting whatever wisdom might flow forth from behind their leader’s Lorax-like mustache.
“Every block in this area is fine,” Burden smiled. “It makes you feel real good.”
Pensacola’s downtown core is mellow and quiet on a Sunday afternoon, save for the fading singing from the passing pedal trolley. Burden steps out into the street and lays out his tape measure across a lane: the width is fine, but could be better.
“Generally, you’re better off with 10-foot lanes,” he says, explaining that slimmer lanes tend to encourage drivers to slow down. “Generally, smaller is going to be better.”
Burden has come to Pensacola to explore the city’s walkability. To consider how the area could be more accommodating to people, could be more hospitable to foot-traffic and bicyclists.
“Do you feel like they want you as pedestrians to be there?” Burden posed a question to the group. “Or do they only welcome cars?”
Burden is the director of inspiration and innovation at Blue Zones. He’s considered an authority on “active transportation.” In 2014, he was recognized by the White House as one of the top ten Champions of Change in Transportation, and TIME magazine named him as “one of the six most important civic innovators in the world.”
The Conservation Fund brought Burden to Pensacola this week to participate in a series of events focused on active transportation. In addition to the Sept. 26 walkabout downtown, he will be participating in an active transportation workshop and a two-day event entitled Connecting Nature and Commerce: Developing Regional Trail Opportunities.
Burden began his Sunday walking tour by asking participants what they hoped to learn from the experience. It was a diverse crowd, ranging from casual walkers to members of the West Florida Regional Planning Council, with a common interest in creating areas that are both welcoming to walking and foster a sense of community and place.
During the afternoon’s walk, participants learned about the nuances that combine to create such a place. They learned about the various zones of a sidewalk, about the advantage of transparent, window-heavy buildings, and the importance of making sure an area offers people a sense of safety and security.
“There will never ever be a walk again where you don’t see things for the first time,” Burden told the group before embarking on their journey.
Walking down Palafox, Burden pointed out things that he thought worked well (like the fact that most of the buildings were fronted with many windows) and things that gave him pause (like “horribly ugly” parking garages junking up the aesthetics and creating awkward voids in an otherwise walkable landscape).
In front of the Old Hickory Whiskey Bar, Burden stopped to point out a grouping of chairs sitting in front of the establishment. The metal chairs had been moved, arranged in a circle to allow for better socializing and easier conversation.
“People love furniture they can move,” Burden said, pointing out the chairs and painting a picture of a rich social environment. “It really tells a great story about the people of Pensacola, it really does.”
But a block back there was something that didn’t seem quiet right. In front of the post office a fountain sat behind a gated enclosure. That barrier, Burden contended, should be removed in order to create a more welcoming space.
“Give people the ability to touch water, alright?” he told the tour group.
Burden will be spending most of this week exploring these issues in the area, studying how the city and region measure up when it comes to fostering a walkable community, as well as how that mission can be moved forward.
Tonight (Sept. 26), Burden will be leading a free public forum, scheduled for 5 p.m., at the downtown library focused on embracing walkability as it relates to economic development. Then, on Tuesday and Wednesday, he will be participating in the Connecting Nature and Commerce workshop which digs into the issues surrounding the creation of a regional, multi-modal network of trails.
And while there is work to be done to improve the area’s “active transportation” scene, Burden offered a sense of optimism about such an effort.
“Your growth is slow enough that you can do the right things from here on out,” he had assured at the onset of Sunday’s walking tour downtown.