Live from TED2014

Public spaces have power: Amanda Burden at TED2014

Posted by: Ben Lillie

TED2014_DD_DSC_4317_1920When we think of cities, we think of buildings and skyscrapers and stray cats. For Amanda Burden, who spent 12 years as New York City’s director of urban planning, they’re primarily about people. They’re about where people go and where they meet — that’s the core of how cities work. And for the people, even more important than the buildings are the public spaces in between them. Those, to Burden, are what makes the cities come alive.

The central question she asks is, “What makes a public space work? What is it about unsuccessful places that keeps people away?” Burden, it turns out, was trained as an animal behaviorist, but she uses those skills to study how people interact with their spaces.

Her first inspiration was Paley Park, a small space in midtown Manhattan. She was fascinated by it in part because it happened to have been built by her stepfather. And because of that, “I knew that places like Paley Park didn’t happen by accident.” She found several reasons it worked: It was comfortable, it had movable chairs, the people attracted other people, and it was green. “Why weren’t there more places with greenery and places to sit in the middle of the city, where you didn’t feel like a trespasser?”

The problem is that this isn’t how cities have been designed. She shows a bare concrete plaza, a very familiar sight in modern cites. Not only does it look desolate, she says, but it feel dangerous. But, she says, “Architects  love them: they are plinths for their creations.” (Calling Marc Kushner!) For developers as well, there is nothing to water, and no “undesirable people” to worry about.

Over years she has learned how hard it is to create meaningful places. In NYC, someone has to think very hard about every detail. Her first project was in Battery Park, at the time a landfill that had laid barren for 10 years. In 6 months it would go bankrupt. So they came up with a crazy plan. They would build a park first, and see what development happened. Crucially, they made a mockup, and as she sat on the bench, the railing was at eye level, ruining the experience. The details were crucial. Successful design, Burden believes, depends on the individual experience.

Twenty years later, then-Mayor Bloomburg made Burden his city planner comissioner. He pointed out that soon the city would increase from 8 to 9 million people. “So where are you going to put 1 million new people?” he asked. The big problem was where to grow in a city that was already built out to its edges. Where to put housing? What about cars? So they needed to build up, and use the city’s greatest asset, the transit system. The central idea was to channel and redirect all new development around transit. And to do that they needed to redo the zoning, targeting where development could go, and prohibiting development in car-oriented parts of the city.

But all of that re-zoning needs the approval of the community, and getting that approval can be difficult. And the way you get that approval is by listening. “People know if you understand their neighborhoods. It’s not something you can just fake.” So she walked the city, thousands of hours, year after year, and spent as much time listening. She became “a geeky zoning expert, finding ways zoning could address a community’s concern.”

Over the course of 12 years the city re-zoned 124 neighborhoods, 40% of the city. That’s 12,500 blocks. And now 90% of new development in NYC is within a 10-minute walk of a subway.

On the water and in the air

Her main mission, though, was still to create great public spaces — spaces that would make a difference in people’s lives. For example, in recent years her team has completely revitalized the waterfront in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, which had been a wasteland,  inaccessible. Now it’s a thriving park, with people coming from all over the city to be there. But even more than that, she says, “I know they changed the lives of people who live there, but it also changed New Yorker’s view of their city.”

This has happened in other areas as well. Lower Manhattan now has public waterfront on all three sides, in stark contrast to the 1990s. All around the city, where there used to be parking spaces there are now pop-up cafes. “What’s the trick?” asks Burden. “How do you turn a park into a place people want to be? It’s up to you, not as a city planner, but as a human being. You don’t tap into your design expertise, you tap into your humanity.”

She then talks about the High Line, a new park so loved by the TED audience that it gets applause just at the mention of its name. It was an elevated railway that has been rebuilt into a gorgeous path full of plants and water. Not everyone likes it. “Developers,” she says, “see only one thing: customers. Wouldn’t it be great to put shops all along the High Line? Wouldn’t that make more money for the city?… No, that would make it a mall, not a park.”

Burden finishes with a powerful message: “If there is any single lesson I’ve learned, it is that public spaces have power. It’s not just the people using them, it’s the even greater number of people who feel better about their city just knowing that they’re there… A successful city is like a fabulous party, people stay because they are having a great time.”