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Active Aging Builds Social Connections: Q&A with Dan Burden

By Sarah Strunk on December 2nd, 2015

As a member of Active Living By Design’s (ALBD’s) inaugural National Advisory Committee (NAC) from 2002-2005, Dan Burden helped us understand what it takes to create activity-friendly communities for everyone. Over the years, Dan has collaborated with residents, policy makers and practitioners in more than 3,500 communities across the world. And today, he is Director of Innovation and Implementation at Blue Zones, a community well-being improvement initiative that makes healthy choices easier through permanent changes to environment, policy and social networks. As we round out our blogging series on active aging, I chatted with this passionate septuagenarian to learn how Dan’s thinking has evolved and what it means for the future.

Q: You’ve worked with Blue Zones for a couple of years now. How is your work helping people live longer, better lives?
A: For the past 80 years, many local, state and national planning policies and practices have reduced active lives, by design. Streets were made almost exclusively for cars, and zoning separated land uses. This has led to social isolation. Our Blue Zones Project work re-plants time-honored planning principles, policies and practices that bring back the possibility of walking and bicycling. By becoming a Blue Zones place, where active transportation is easy, people can live affordably and have the benefits of an active environment.

Q: You’ve said that if places are built for people aged 8 to 80, they’re built for everyone. But are there any particularly important considerations as we think about the needs of older people?
A: Built environments focused on the needs of older adults produce some of the most profound results for everyone. Older people need quiet, low-traffic streets with well-gridded street patterns and well maintained sidewalks. They need immediate access to nature, not just distant woods or a trail. They need places to go to socialize. Proximity is especially important for older people. Men and women will outlive their ability to drive a car by 7 years and 12 years, respectively. Going car free isn’t just for young people. I think we’ll see more of that in older adults, where people realize there’s value in maintaining social relationships that are close enough to borrow a car.

Q: For decades, you’ve helped elected officials, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, businesses and residents collaborate to create safer, healthier and more livable communities. How do you think we’re doing?
A: We’re making progress, but only one in 1000 places where people live have been sufficiently transformed to reach all lives. Too many professionals still work inside their silos. As we find people who are willing to lead the charge for better places, and they organize and bring change, city and county budgets can respond and reflect health-focused community values. Often it takes a champion, someone who can work their neighborhood and get everyone to the table. We now have tens of thousands of active transportation beachheads, and some great oases where people can live healthy lives. Now we must take these models and adopt broad community policies to better the lives of all people.

Q: That sounds great, but how do we ensure gentrification doesn’t displace people, especially older adults and those on limited incomes?
A: We need to urge communities to create quality of life without losing affordability. That’s an issue everywhere, and it’s got to be addressed. One criterion for being a Blue Zone is that you have to have many types of housing. We don’t want to price people out. AARP has developed a great fact sheet on revitalization without displacement. It can be done!

Q: Despite this progress, we still have major health disparities in the United States. If you could advocate for a few changes to ensure all people could live long, healthy lives, what would they be?
A: Policies should be measured by whether they reach everyone in the community, not favor those places where people have higher incomes. Most cities get their greatest lift by starting with their town center, and then address those neighborhoods that surround the city center. A simple rule is to rebuild streets and parking to reward the short trip. Sometimes it’s just a matter of changing incentives. I think this is an important concept. Some might say this is social engineering—and it is! We’re just saying we want to level the playing field by engineering for things that are healthy, prosperous, sustainable and smart. We used to do this naturally before we rewrote code to favor cars over people.

Q: In what ways did your work as an ALBD NAC member help shape your perspective?
A: ALBD broadened and elevated my thinking that active living wasn’t just a pipe dream, but something pragmatic and real. It taught me the value of implementation. It gave me even more validation and confidence that what we were doing was important and achievable.

Q: Thanks for your insights, Dan! Are there any closing thoughts you’d like to share?
A: I have great hope for walking and active living to become natural activities again. We know what to build. Towns and cities that thrive in the future will be more compact, more mixed, more sociable and human scale. The markers for such success are evidence based, and the best leaders are shooting not just for immediate wins, but for long-term success. When I started, only 15 percent of Americans thought that active living mattered, now 85 percent do. We have liftoff!

Sarah Strunk

Strategic Advisor

Healthy communities networker, integrator and distance runner on the go.