Kansas City.Walking Audit (dan-burden)

The Future of Urban Living: Building and Shaping Great Cities

By Dan Burden, Blue Zones Director of Innovation and Inspiration

If our planet is to regain its health, vitality, sustainability, equitability, and resilience, we must focus on cities. Why? Rural spaces and small villages once defined health and quality of life for humanity, but we crossed a threshold on May 29, 2007, when more than 50 percent of the world’s people (83.4 percent of Americans) now lived in cities. By 2050, this amount is expected to climb to 66 percent. More than 3 million people per week move to cities to work, live, recreate, and socialize. What does this shift mean? How we design, build, and operate our cities defines who we become, how healthy we are, how much we spend, how long we live, and how habitable our civilizations and planet remain.

How we design, build, and operate our cities defines who we become, how healthy we are, how much we spend, how long we live, and how habitable our civilizations and planet remain.

I am honored to have been selected as one of twenty specialists from around the world to gather at St. George’s House in Windsor Castle this mid-December to explore, “The Future of Urban Living.” Our carefully selected group of global experts in key areas, such as climate change, energy, food, agriculture, urban planning, architecture, transportation, sociology, and economy, is charged with laying ground work for a publication addressing innovative solutions for urban living. These solutions must be scalable, replicable, and adaptable in a variety of urban environments.

Possibly, the long-term future of our human habitat and survival depends on how well our thoughts and ideas are articulated and accepted by the world’s peoples and leaders.

Health leaders, such as Blue Zones founder Dan Buettner and University of Washington’s Dr. Howie Frumkin (among others), have been warning us to stop fouling our community and planetary nests. The earth has limits, and we have no other place to go. We have arrived at a time in human history when most of our cities are neither healthy nor sustainable. The 20 global experts gathering at St. George’s will apply the same type of rigor that Dan applied to find the world’s five blue zones of health and longevity. On a broader scale, this group of 20 seeks to determine best principles, strategies, and models to address not just health and longevity but also all other parameters in the face of climate change. The challenge for humanity is immense, but we suggest the same inspiration and innovation we use on the Blue Zones Project® to change how well and how long people live will serve us well in rebuilding the health and vitality of our urban nests.

What if you were selected, as one of 20 people from 4 continents and 14 countries, to join together to determine the timeless innovations and solutions for the Future of Urban Living… what topics would you address? The people chosen are among the most experienced in the world in building habitable, sustainable, resilient, diverse cities, but we welcome everyone’s ideas.

I have spent my 50-year career centered on building livable cities, knowing that my success centered on practical ways to address a culture resistant to change. In my innocent youth, I thought answers to livability questions were simple: encourage people to see, feel, and become more connected to one another by riding bicycles. This shift was not just practical, affordable, efficient, healthy, and fun—I thought it was magical. As my career progressed, I came to recognize the complexity of livability, and the even tougher challenge of changing peoples’ habits. My initial approach, naïve and simplistic, i.e. that a single tool like bicycling could change the world, was flawed, and in time I also embraced walking, as a finer grain solution for transport, living, and engaging others. I joined many who recognized the need for cities to become not just walkable, but compact, connected, comfortable, and collaborative with nature. In time, I became aware of many more ways to build cities with less isolation to bring more people together. I came to realize that social equity, diversity, cost of living, livability, and sustainability rested heavily on designing cities for people.

When I was still in high school (1961), Jane Jacobs was warning the world through the pages of her book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities, to stop designing cities for cars, and to follow timeless, traditional designs to build for people.


Dan Burden leads the company in reinventing streets, neighborhoods and towns with walkability and bikeability solutions. He is the nation’s most recognized authority on walkability, bicycle and pedestrian programs, street corridor and intersection design, traffic flow & calming, road diets, and other city planning elements. The White House recognized him as one of the top ten Champions of Change in Transportation, TIME magazine called him “one of the six most important civic innovators in the world,” and his peers at Planetizen list him as one of the 100 most significant urban thinkers of all time.

Other resources by Dan Burden:

22 Reasons Trees in Cities Keep Us Healthy and Save Us Money

Built Environment Impact on Public Health

Walkability & Healthy City-Making

Creative Altruism

Purpose Driven People: The Power of Passion

Related Articles