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Blue Zones pursues “walkable” Dodge County

December 17, 2016 GMT

Dan Burden wants to help create change. As the director of innovation and inspiration for Blue Zones, Burden held four workshops on “walkability” in Juneau, Beaver Dam, Horicon and Mayville this week, aimed at making local community members think differently about where they live and how they can create the best versions of their communities.

Blue Zone communities promote wellness through all aspects of life, including food, exercise, aesthetics, safety and positive interaction with others. Beaver Dam, Juneau, Mayville and Horicon are now targeted for those efforts.

“What we like to do is work with the community so that enough people become knowledgeable about why other ways of doing things are better, cheaper, safer and more friendly to all types of travel,” Burden said. “That’s our job — to help people come to understand that what we have been doing has been very wasteful.”

Burden was named by Time Magazine in 2011 as “one of the six most important civic innovators in the world.” He is an international walkability expert who works directly with Blue Zones Project communities to reshape their built environments by providing insights into policies and initiatives that could help make Dodge County a more vibrant, walkable and bikeable community.

Burden said, “Our real job is to bring about change so that people understand that the change is much better for them.”

Burden met with the fifth grade students from Dodgeland Elementary School on Dec. 12 and took them for a walk of their community so they could really see their town in a new way. Samantha Thomas, built environment manager for Blue Zones said, “The walking tour is a powerful tool to let people see their community from a different lens.”

Burden measured the roadway next to Dodgeland Elementary, explaining that it is too wide. “There was 11 feet left over on my side so I suspect there is another 11 feet on the other side,” Burden said. “That is 22 feet of unused space that cars don’t need and it only creates confusion when you try to shove cars in two lanes in an intersection when they should go in one at a time.”

Burden explained that small changes like decreasing the roadway size can have a drastic impact on the city’s walkability and viability. “The big wide intersection is so over built that if we were to do it the right size, the right scale, there would be only one lane in each direction. The traffic doesn’t need more than one lane.”

When asked what issues he thought were most pressing for Dodge County, Burden responded, “A very big issue here in Dodge County is are we going to be able to hold onto the children? And the answer is not unless you win the battle to be focused on people.”

“The millennial generation wants more activity. They want more things going on and the only way to do that is for the community to work together and to invest its resources where it is going to bring those results. A good entertainment district. Not one from the past. One that has good music and events going on and more programmed activities in parks. All the things that really build and celebrate the family values. As that happens, the economy of the town explodes.”

Burden said, “The youths of America, when they are looking for a job, they are looking for the place first and then the employment.”

Thomas said, “From our lens, all four communities have really great downtown centers. So the sweet spot would always be to invest in the cores. Not everyone lives there but they are destinations that people can come to, park once, walk, grab a bike and enjoy the different things. It is a bigger return on investment for all people who live in those towns.”

That is the goal of Blue Zones, Thomas explained. “A lot of it is how do we renew our sense of pride as community members and what do we want to focus our energies around to bring back that social connectedness, the sense of pride.”

One community that Thomas and Burden worked with previously, Albert Lea, Minnesota, recently underwent what Thomas called a “road diet.” The city worked with Blue Zones to repave their road, reducing it from a four-lane road with a central turn lane to a single travel lane with a middle turn lane.

Thomas said, “They were successful in working with the state of Minnesota Department of Transportation to make that change. It has now become a model for that whole district of the state. The road that they changed had 13 crashes a year and it only recorded three this past year after the change. They saw immediate improvement and it proved the research that we have done across the country about the power of that type of roadway design and its safety.”

When asked why Blue Zones chose to focus its efforts on Juneau, Beaver Dam, Horicon and Mayville, Burden responded, “We always start with central cities. One of the things that we know is that an acre of land for a downtown will produce 800 percent more than an acre in a suburban strip center. That is huge.”

Thomas and Burden hope to gather insight into what the best projects are for Dodge County through the walkability workshops and continued meetings with community members. “This is kind of like a first step of many,” Thomas said.

“Right now the local team that is being hired as part of Blue Zones Project Dodge County is starting to work with local leaders to form a built environment, active living steering committee for the whole region that will help guide and be a part of working on different policies and other built projects that could be the models that demonstrate change towards more healthy and active living. This will help inform that leadership group and give them information so they can set their priorities. We will also work on coming back to the communities to do a few more workshops in the new year to really focus more specifically on that local project that can demonstrate change.

Burden said, “What Blue Zones is focused on largely is the health impact: physical health, social health, emotional health, psychological health. But it turns out that everything we need to do for the built environment increases the net worth of the community.”