Amanda Burden TED2014: What is it that makes a city great?

Amanda Burden, who served as Director of the New York City Department of City Planning and Chair of the City Planning Commission under recent Mayor Bloomberg, will argue that it is so much more than simply the buildings that comprise it: “Cities are fundamentally about people. Public space is what makes cities come alive."

I don’t know about you, but my inner urbanist nerd gets excited when I hear this. This past Tuesday, March 18th, I had the opportunity to escape the office for a couple hours and attend Burden’s talk at a local simulcast of the TED2014 conference in Whistler, BC, Canada.  I have long been interested in how people move through, react to, and live in their “space”. For me, this is what ties us together: the fabric that we navigate through in our everyday life, and makes up a city, a neighborhood, a community. For landscape architects, spatial designers by trade, it’s terribly exciting when the focus of the conversation includes not only some architecturally significant buildings, but also the space that is created between them.

Not all public spaces are created equal. Some are very successful and some are not. Why? Burden addresses this question with the example of Paley Park. This well-known and powerful little park, which just happens to be one of my favorite places in the city, offers a quiet, comfortable and green place to temporarily escape the city. As Burden talks, my mind drifts to a not-so-recent fall afternoon, the light filtering through the leaves of the trees, the sound of friendly chatter at the table next to me, and the splash of the water wall, gently masking the bustle of the streets just beyond the steps at the entry.  It is this experience, the ‘human element’, Burden claims, that when added to an elegantly simple design and attention to detail is the key to creating a successful public space.  Mere open space does not mean that it will be successful. On the contrary, she argues that large plazas, while offering tons of ‘space’ to occupy, are lacking.  Where do you sit? Where is the green, the comfort? Instead these expansive areas of concrete and paving serve only as a “plinth to the architect’s creation.” Successful design depends on the individual’s experience.

Photo: Saitowitz

As Director of City Planning, the first challenge Burden was faced with, was to find a solution to accommodate the additional million New Yorkers that were predicted to be moving to the city in the next few years.  This is a major issue for a geographically limited city that is already built out to the last square inch. The planning team decided that instead of looking to build out they should build up, and Burden started to explore ways to accommodate this growth through rezoning. Focusing this effort along lines of public transit made the most sense, it not only spread potential development throughout all the city, but also eliminated the need for these new residents to own a car. A rezoning project at this scale is a massive undertaking, and Burden began her effort by listening… and walking. She personally visited and spoke with the public in each of these areas, giving her a special insight and understanding of the individual character of each neighborhood. It also resulted in a rezoning proposal that would offer a unique and sensitive solution that would focus 90% of New York’s new development within a 10 minute walk of a subway line.

It was during these walks that Burden realized that these newly developed areas were not only in need of easy access to public transit, but successful public spaces. She began to take notice of potential areas that could become vibrant and active spaces. Burden makes the point that successful public space doesn’t happen by accident; they are in “need of vigilant champions." Burden personally ‘championed’ the remake of the Brooklyn waterfront, the East River esplanade, and the Hudson Yards project. These innovative parks have transformed the city’s landscape with simple moves such as bringing activity to the waters edge, offering comfortable seating and opening new views across to the other side.    

Photo: Glenwood

It is unfortunate that public space has always been at odds with private development. Another project that Burden personally championed was the wildly successful and popular High Line, that even just now had to fight a long hard battle against developers to extend in to the third and final phase (they won).

I wholeheartedly agree with Amanda Burden. Public spaces have power. They add to the common good of a city and give it the human experience that makes our cities great.  People not only use these spaces but it ultimately changes their view of how they feel about a city. Burden said it best: “A successful city is like a fabulous party, people stay because they are having a great time.”

So can I ask you a question, where is your favorite space?