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Blue Zones leader advocates ‘smart growth’ to reduce traffic in cities

Dan Burden, the director of inspiration and innovation for Blue Zones, a nonprofit that advocates for progressive street design changes around the world, came to the beach cities this week with a difficult pill to swallow.

When cities increased density and reduced traffic lanes, they actually improved the flow of traffic, he said.

“We’ve been over building our cities for our cars, and we’ve ended up with some results that we’d like to change,” Burden said.

On Monday, Burden joined Paul Zykofsky, associate director of the Local Government Commission Team and author of “building livable communities,” for a community design workshop in Manhattan Beach to help spur the local dialogue on what the future should look like.

“People don’t like change even when change is inevitable,” Zykofsky said. “There are issues that cities have to address, but change is going to happen.”

The event, hosted by the Beach Cities Health District, capped a whirlwind day for the pair, who also met with civic leaders from each of the beach cities.

Burden knows all too well the opposition to some of their ideas as city leaders throughout North America have invited him to consult on creating what he terms “complete streets” that are safer, more efficient and spur economic growth.

In one city in Florida, he was met with a community split 50-50 on a particular design project.

“I said, ‘Then I cannot help you, but I can teach you to help yourself,” Burden said.

And that, in essence, is what he’s been doing for the past 40 years.

Burden said cities brought speeds down in several fast-moving commercial districts by reducing traffic lanes and adding bike lanes, landscaping and curb enhancements. It took shorter periods for pedestrians to cross the street, so cars had more “green light time,” and the commercial district flourished, Burden said.

Street design changes in Lancaster, California, for instance, were credited with bringing $600 million in economic growth to the downtown core, he said. West Palm Beach, Florida; Hamburg, New York; and Avon, Colorado, each also represent success stories, according to Burden.

Yet building consensus is never easy, as Zykofsky readily acknowledged.

“For many years any kind of development was a bad word, especially in built-out communities,” Zykofsky said. “But instead of stopping development, what we need to think about is what is our values and our vision and how do we make sure that the development that does come to our communities adds quality and livability.”

Locally, several recent projects were either part of a Blue Zones initiative, which the beach cities of Manhattan, Hermosa and Redondo Beach joined in 2010, or otherwise aligned with those principles: The bike path on Harbor Drive, angled parking on Herondo Street, roundabouts and road diets on Vista Del Mar. Some, obviously, more popular than others.

Mixed-use zoning, recently opposed by the Redondo Beach City Council, is supported by Zykofsky and Burden as progressive since it reduces vehicular trips by placing shopping and restaurants within walking distance.

In 40 years on working toward building consensus among communities, Burden said he’s learned not to try to change opinions, but give people the tools to make the best decisions for themselves.

“I found out we were using the wrong public engagement strategies. That people would just argue and not build anything,” he said. “If we get good information then we can make smart decisions together.”

How then, did he suggest a community move forward?

“Find your local champion,” he said. “Who are the people in your neighborhood who can really motivate and get everyone behind coming up with an idea and keep that moving forward?

“We cannot do that by asking our elected leaders to put their whole career at stake, nor our best government officials,” he continues. “We need people who will become the champions of things really needed in their community.”

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