Dan Burden walks us into an alley a half-block north of Benson's main street, stops and jabs a finger toward the sky.
“Look around,” he says to the dozens of engineers and architects and business owners following him.
I look around, and here is what I see: The alley opens into a cracked parking lot populated only by weeds and sagging telephone lines. Nearby stands an old, abandoned warehouse, pockmarked with shattered windows.
I see ugliness. I see emptiness. I see ... nothing.
I look back at Dan, and his eyes are shining.
“This would be an ideal place,” he says. “A perfect place for an outdoor cafe.”
Dan has done these walking tours in 3,500 different cities and towns, and here is what he sees: The abandoned warehouse's big windows would be perfect for a Benson apartment building. The cracked parking lot could easily be transformed into outdoor seating on the back side of a Maple Street restaurant. And those sagging telephone lines give this spot its character. They should stay.
Best of all, we could walk around the place that Dan has created in its mind. It would become a key part of a new kind of Benson.
A Benson that is friendly to strolling. A Benson weened off the almighty automobile.
“We can't blame the car. It isn't the car's fault,” Dan says. “We can blame ourselves for not understanding how cities work. The cities that figure it out first — they will win.”
Dan Burden has spent his life figuring out why cities win and why they lose. The former National Geographic photographer spent 16 years at the Florida Department of Transportation, in that time helping to redefine neighborhood planning. Since 1996, he has run nonprofits focused on making communities more walkable, more vibrant — and more profitable.
Time Magazine labeled him “one of the six most important civic innovators in the world.”
When he talks, engineers and architects and city planners and sometimes even politicians listen.
Today he is talking about Benson, specifically about how Benson's beautiful old buildings can thrive if we rethink the way we travel through the neighborhood.
Let's be honest: The Maple Street landscape is a mess. The sidewalks are narrow. The stoplights are many. The trees and plants and flowers are few. Pedestrians play real-life Frogger to cross a street as cars zoom by at 30 miles per hour.
In a way, this mess makes Benson's recent renaissance all that more impressive. Benson's ascendance is occurring despite planning, not because of it.
Dan has been brought here by Omaha By Design, the urban planning nonprofit, and Vireo, a planning and design firm, to conduct a walkability tour of Benson. As we walk the neighborhood, Dan points out common-sense improvements to Maple Street and the surrounding area that he thinks will shoot Benson into the stratosphere.
For starters: Get rid of the red lights. All of them.
“You have way too many traffic signals on this street! Way too many!” he yells as we stand at the corner of Maple Street and Military Avenue.
He pulls out a tape measure and measures the sidewalk — there's about three feet of actual walkable space, he says.
Maple Street needs better walking areas, he says.
He pulls out his tape measure again and wades into traffic wearing a yellow vest. He measures Maple Street itself — way too wide, he says.
It needs smaller driving lanes and curb cutouts and other tricks that will slow down traffic and make stoplights unnecessary.
Maple Street also needs shaded areas for outdoor seating, more spots for people on foot and on bikes to congregate and see one another and feel a sense of community.
The back sides of the beautiful old buildings need to be used. Gravel parking lots and abandoned alleyways can become outdoor seating and green space, if connected to Maple Street by walkways between buildings.
The whole thing needs to be beautified. It needs to be humanized. It needs to be a place to stay, not a place to drive through.
“What's the first thing an infant wants to do and the last thing an older person wants to give up?” he asks the crowd. Walking, we answer.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
“And what happens when we start to infuse energy into a neighborhood?” he asks. People will park their cars, the crowd says. They will park and walk around.
Based on Burden's decades of work, these changes would bring down the average speed of cars and make Benson safer for pedestrians. It would do so by actually improving the flow of traffic, he says — you might be driving slower, but you won't have to stop for a red.
And if you slow the flow of traffic down to around 17 mph, and make it accessible for cyclists and strollers, Benson business owners and homeowners alike will become very happy, Dan thinks.
The business owners will be happy because they will get more business. The homeowners will be happy because their homes will increase in value.
“We have to change the emphasis,” he says. “Change it from, 'How much traffic we can move through how fast?' to 'How much money can we make?' ”
This isn't a hypothetical exercise. The City of Omaha and related agencies are planning to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on upgrading Benson's downtown starting in 2015.
Connie Spellman, the director of Omaha By Design, senses that the neighborhood's business owners have a new enthusiasm for a new way to spend that money — maybe wider sidewalks instead of wider streets. Maybe curb appeal instead of commuter zeal. The Benson-area streetscape project “needs to have a fresh start with fresh ideas,” she says. “We can get people excited about what can be.”
There will be debates about the best way to improve Benson, and for decades those debates have been won by motorists who wanted the quickest way in or out during rush hour.
That is changing, Dan says. He shows us slides of neighborhood redevelopment he's done across the country. The before shots: Photos of asphalt and stopped cars and deserted sidewalks. The after shots: Photos of more trees and more people and fewer stopped cars.
That only happens if the debate is won by the walkers, he says. That only happens if we get out of cars, stroll around and imagine the possibilities.
“Is this a landscape we want to leave our children?” he asks.
I look up and down Maple Street, and I know the answer.