In Memoriam: David G. Burwell 1949-2017

By Shin-pei Tsay, Executive Director

I’d like to recognize the loss of a mentor, David Burwell, who passed away on February 1, 2017.

Among David’s many professional achievements was the co-founding of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in 1986, which he led for 15 years. The project grew from his observation of his mother’s successful campaign to turn a defunct Cape Cod railway into a trail. It became a national organization. Under David’s leadership, RTC won on-the-ground infrastructure connecting people and communities from coast to coast by bike and foot. Imagine achieving this at the height of highway design practices.

David’s persistence helped spread the notion that transportation dollars could be used to improve public spaces for people, from trails and city bike lanes to sidewalks and plazas. And it is because of David’s success that we at Gehl Institute believe system change for our public realm is achievable, no matter how daunting the task sometimes seems.

What may be less known about David is his enduring investment in other people. He liked to bank on human potential. At office functions he could always be found in the corner energetically chatting with the interns. He felt it was his duty to find future leaders and push them towards public service.

Indeed, long ago I was one of those young people. I had the privilege of working with David at Project for Public Spaces and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Quite simply, I would not be who I am today without his generosity. He also shaped my thinking in more practical ways. While working with David, I discovered that he authored The End of the Road: A Citizens Guide to Transportation Problemsolving. It was an advocacy guide for the public to engage in their public spaces written back in 1978.

I imagine that other people corresponding with David received e-mails like the one I got just two weeks ago, when he shared an article about some new development in cities and then unnecessarily credited me by signing off, “you saw it first.”

David, you were the one who saw it first. You will be missed.


Image Credit: Tom Miano / Rails-To-Trails Conservancy