Amanda Burden: How public spaces make cities work

Amanda Burden: How public spaces make cities work

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When people think about cities, they tend to think of certain things. They think of buildings and streets and skyscrapers, noisy cabs. But when I think about cities, I think about people. Cities are fundamentally about people, and where people go and where people meet are at the core of what makes a city work. So even more important than buildings in a city are the public spaces in between them. And today, some of the most transformative changes in cities are happening in these public spaces. So I believe that lively, enjoyable public spaces are the key to planning a great city. They are what makes it come alive. But what makes a public space work? What attracts people to successful public spaces, and what is it about unsuccessful places that keeps people away? I thought, if I could answer those questions, I could make a huge contribution to my city. But one of the more wonky things about me is that I am an animal behaviorist, and I use those skills not to study animal behavior but to study how people in cities use city public spaces. One of the first spaces that I studied was this little vest pocket park called Paley Park in midtown Manhattan. This little space became a small phenomenon, and because it had such a profound impact on New Yorkers, it made an enormous impression on me. I studied this park very early on in my career because it happened to have been built by my stepfather, so I knew that places like Paley Park didn’t happen by accident. I saw firsthand that they required incredible dedication and enormous attention to detail. But what was it about this space that made it special and drew people to it? Well, I would sit in the park and watch very carefully, and first among other things were the comfortable, movable chairs. People would come in, find their own seat, move it a bit, actually, and then stay a while, and then interestingly, people themselves attracted other people, and ironically, I felt more peaceful if there were other people around. And it was green. This little park provided what New Yorkers crave: comfort and greenery. But my question was, why weren’t there more places with greenery and places to sit in the middle of the city where you didn’t feel alone, or like a trespasser? Unfortunately, that’s not how cities were being designed. So here you see a familiar sight. This is how plazas have been
designed for generations. They have that stylish, Spartan look that we often associate with modern architecture, but it’s not surprising that people avoid spaces like this. They not only look desolate, they feel downright dangerous. I mean, where would you sit here? What would you do here? But architects love them. They are plinths for their creations. They might tolerate a sculpture or two, but that’s about it. And for developers, they are ideal. There’s nothing to water, nothing to maintain, and no undesirable people to worry about. But don’t you think this is a waste? For me, becoming a city planner meant being able to truly change the city that I lived in and loved. I wanted to be able to create places that would give you the feeling that you got in Paley Park, and not allow developers to
build bleak plazas like this. But over the many years, I have learned how hard it is to create successful, meaningful, enjoyable public spaces. As I learned from my stepfather, they certainly do not happen by accident, especially in a city like New York, where public space has to
be fought for to begin with, and then for them to be successful, somebody has to think very hard about every detail. Now, open spaces in cities are opportunities. Yes, they are opportunities
for commercial investment, but they are also opportunities for the common good of the city, and those two goals are often
not aligned with one another, and therein lies the conflict. The first opportunity I had to fight for a great public open space was in the early 1980s, when I was leading a team of planners at a gigantic landfill called Battery Park City in lower Manhattan on the Hudson River. And this sandy wasteland had lain barren for 10 years, and we were told, unless we found a developer in six months, it would go bankrupt. So we came up with a radical, almost insane idea. Instead of building a park as a complement to future development, why don’t we reverse that equation and build a small but very high-quality public open space first, and see if that made a difference. So we only could afford to build a two-block section of what would become a mile-long esplanade, so whatever we built had to be perfect. So just to make sure, I insisted that we build a mock-up in wood, at scale, of the railing and the sea wall. And when I sat down on that test bench with sand still swirling all around me, the railing hit exactly at eye level, blocking my view and ruining my experience at the water’s edge. So you see, details really do make a difference. But design is not just how something looks, it’s how your body feels on that seat in that space, and I believe that successful design always depends on that very individual experience. In this photo, everything looks very finished, but that granite edge, those lights, the back on that bench, the trees in planting, and the many different kinds of places to sit were all little battles that turned this project into a place that people wanted to be. Now, this proved very valuable 20 years later when Michael Bloomberg asked me to be his planning commissioner and put me in charge of shaping the entire city of New York. And he said to me on that very day, he said that New York was projected to grow from eight to nine million people. And he asked me, “So where are you going to put one million additional New Yorkers?” Well, I didn’t have any idea. Now, you know that New York does place a high value on attracting immigrants, so we were excited about the prospect of growth, but honestly, where were we going to grow in a city that was already built out to its edges and surrounded by water? How were we going to find housing for that many new New Yorkers? And if we couldn’t spread out, which was probably a good thing, where could new housing go? And what about cars? Our city couldn’t possibly handle any more cars. So what were we going to do? If we couldn’t spread out, we had to go up. And if we had to go up, we had to go up in places where you wouldn’t need to own a car. So that meant using one of our greatest assets: our transit system. But we had never before thought of how we could make the most of it. So here was the answer to our puzzle. If we were to channel and redirect all new development around transit, we could actually handle that population increase, we thought. And so here was the plan, what we really needed to do: We needed to redo our zoning — and zoning is the city planner’s regulatory tool — and basically reshape the entire city, targeting where new development could go and prohibiting any development at all in our car-oriented, suburban-style neighborhoods. Well, this was an unbelievably ambitious idea, ambitious because communities had to approve those plans. So how was I going to get this done? By listening. So I began listening, in fact, thousands of hours of listening just to establish trust. You know, communities can tell whether or not you understand their neighborhoods. It’s not something you can just fake. And so I began walking. I can’t tell you how many blocks I walked, in sweltering summers, in freezing winters, year after year, just so I could get to understand the DNA of each neighborhood and know what each street felt like. I became an incredibly geeky zoning expert, finding ways that zoning could address communities’ concerns. So little by little, neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, we began to set height limits so that all new development would be predictable and near transit. Over the course of 12 years, we were able to rezone 124 neighborhoods, 40 percent of the city, 12,500 blocks, so that now, 90 percent of all new development of New York is within a 10-minute walk of a subway. In other words, nobody in those new buildings needs to own a car. Well, those rezonings were exhausting and enervating and important, but rezoning was never my mission. You can’t see zoning and you can’t feel zoning. My mission was always to create great public spaces. So in the areas where we zoned
for significant development, I was determined to create places that would make a difference in people’s lives. Here you see what was two miles of abandoned, degraded waterfront in the neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn, impossible to get to and impossible to use. Now the zoning here was massive, so I felt an obligation to create magnificent parks on these waterfronts, and I spent an incredible amount of time on every square inch of these plans. I wanted to make sure that there were tree-lined paths from the upland to the water, that there were trees and plantings everywhere, and, of course, lots and lots of places to sit. Honestly, I had no idea how it would turn out. I had to have faith. But I put everything that I had studied and learned into those plans. And then it opened, and I have to tell you, it was incredible. People came from all over the city to be in these parks. I know they changed the lives
of the people who live there, but they also changed New Yorkers’ whole image of their city. I often come down and watch people get on this little ferry that now runs between the boroughs, and I can’t tell you why, but I’m completely moved by the fact that people are using it as if it had always been there. And here is a new park in lower Manhattan. Now, the water’s edge in lower Manhattan was a complete mess before 9/11. Wall Street was essentially landlocked because you couldn’t get anywhere near this edge. And after 9/11, the city had very little control. But I thought if we went to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and got money to reclaim this two miles of degraded waterfront that it would have an enormous effect on the rebuilding of lower Manhattan. And it did. Lower Manhattan finally has a public waterfront on all three sides. I really love this park. You know, railings have to be higher now, so we put bar seating at the edge, and you can get so close to the water you’re practically on it. And see how the railing widens and flattens out so you can lay down your lunch or your laptop. And I love when people come there and look up and they say, “Wow, there’s Brooklyn, and it’s so close.” So what’s the trick? How do you turn a park into a place that people want to be? Well, 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. I mean, would you want to go there? Would you want to stay there? Can you see into it and out of it? Are there other people there? Does it seem green and friendly? Can you find your very own seat? Well now, all over New York City, there are places where you can find your very own seat. Where there used to be parking spaces, there are now pop-up cafes. Where Broadway traffic used to run, there are now tables and chairs. Where 12 years ago, sidewalk
cafes were not allowed, they are now everywhere. But claiming these spaces for public use was not simple, and it’s even harder to keep them that way. So now I’m going to tell you a story about a very unusual park called the High Line. The High Line was an elevated railway. (Applause) The High Line was an elevated railway that ran through three neighborhoods on Manhattan’s West Side, and when the train stopped running, it became a self-seeded landscape, a kind of a garden in the sky. And when I saw it the first time, honestly, when I went up on that old viaduct, I fell in love the way you fall in love with a person, honestly. And when I was appointed, saving the first two sections of the High Line from demolition became my first priority and my most important project. I knew if there was a day that I didn’t worry about the High Line, it would come down. And the High Line, even though it is widely known now and phenomenally popular, it is the most contested public space in the city. You might see a beautiful park, but not everyone does. You know, it’s true, commercial interests will always battle against public space. You might say, “How wonderful it is that more than four million people come from all over the world to visit the High Line.” Well, a developer sees just one thing: customers. Hey, why not take out those plantings and have shops all along the High Line? Wouldn’t that be terrific and won’t it mean a lot more money for the city? Well no, it would not be terrific. It would be a mall, and not a park. (Applause) And you know what, it might mean more money for the city, but a city has to take the long view, the view for the common good. Most recently, the last section of the High Line, the third section of the High Line, the final section of the High Line, has been pitted against development interests, where some of the city’s leading developers are building more than 17 million square feet at the Hudson Yards. And they came to me and proposed that they “temporarily disassemble” that third and final section. Perhaps the High Line didn’t fit in with their image of a gleaming city of skyscrapers on a hill. Perhaps it was just in their way. But in any case, it took nine months of nonstop daily negotiation to finally get the signed agreement to prohibit its demolition, and that was only two years ago. So you see, no matter how popular and successful a public space may be, it can never be taken for granted. Public spaces always — this is it saved — public spaces always need vigilant champions, not only to claim them at the outset for public use, but to design them for the people that use them, then to maintain them to ensure that they are for everyone, that they are not violated, invaded, abandoned or ignored. If there is any one lesson that I have learned in my life as a city planner, it is that public spaces have power. It’s not just the number of people using them, it’s the even greater number of people who feel better about their city just knowing that they are there. Public space can change how you live in a city, how you feel about a city, whether you choose one city over another, and public space is one of
the most important reasons why you stay in a city. I believe that a successful city is like a fabulous party. People stay because they are having a great time. Thank you. (Applause) Thank you. (Applause)

100 thoughts on “Amanda Burden: How public spaces make cities work”

  1. Yes this is sweet and all but the title should be "How public spaces make New York City work even more than it already does". I live in a much smaller and less popular town than NY yet still has large potential to be a visitor destination with its downtown area if we work our main park area. New York already works and these areas just add to it. It would be nice to see her talk about doing work in a much less popular city. I would be much more impressed. 

  2. Can you come to Toronto? At least get rid of the METAL benches that are as hot as a frying pan during summer and equally cold during winter. 

  3. GREAT video. One comment: Although she says the large concrete aprons in front of high rises are bleak and a 'waste', I suspect the architects intend that there be some deliberately open space completely uncluttered by anything, as relief from confinement and crowding by people. You can walk a moment across one, or stand near it, and recover. I'm sure she understands minimalism, the comfort of it. Bruce Thomson in New Zealand.

  4. There is a whole profession called landscape architecture that specifically deal with public space creation. Irritates me a bit that she doesn't mention it at all. They fight long and hard to create success full public space. Wonderful examples through out the world

  5. This makes me want to plan to trip to NY and visit these parks – and in frankness I've never really wanted to visit NY before.

  6. i really like ur words and thoughts regarding planning.
    Planning really belongs to PEOPLE but also to create balance nature and its mining.

  7. any politics aside, a government employee that takes that much time to walk around and learn and listen is a good government employee


  8. As an architecture student living in one of the most poorly planned and dangerous cities in Brazil, I feel moved and inspired, but saddenned because we have naturally so many green areas underused in opposition to NYC that it's a shame the way we waste the opportunity to create quality space for the locals!

  9. Replace a well designed and well placed park with a mall and concrete, and watch how quickly all those tourists disappear. People don't come to shop, they come for the public space. It's funny how developers can look at amazing public spaces and just want to tear them down for commercial interests, which would actually reduce the income of the city. Why? Because the reasons people had to come were bulldozed and replaced with concrete slabs.

  10. Good talk but I totally disagree with the height limits set on new transit-orientated development, imposing height restrictions is a major reason why NYC and other cities are so absurdly unaffordable. On the topic of transit orientated development, it's great you have that vision but what about the transit itself, most systems are so horribly underfunded that they are at the breaking point. Bottom line is when it comes to planning, planners need to think about every piece that makes up the whole; example Washington DC's transit orientated development was great, but now it is in crisis because planners focused on the "development" and not on the "transit", as DC'S metro crumbles, so too will its development miracle.

  11. Another important aspect of public spaces for people to interact is that it removes some of the barriers between it`s inhabitants and further grows connectedness. If we only interact on our social media we miss the chance to get a true connection with someone we might not have engaged with in the 1st place.

  12. "How do you transform a space into a place where people want to be.
    Well it's up to you, not as a city planner but as a human being. You don’t tap into your Design expertise, but into you humanity. I mean, could you want to go there, would want to stay there, can you see into it and out of it, are there people there, does it seem green and friendly. Can you find, Your Very Own seat." – Amanda Burden

    wooooow……….. This is the most passionate city planner I have ever seen. WOwwwwwwwww!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  13. "I believe that a successful is like a fabulous party, People stay, because they are having a great time.! – Amanda Burden. Woooooooooooooooow………

  14. We need "a" Amanda Burden in São Paulo – Brazil ASAP…. and also in many other brazilian cities… as well !!! With due respect: That is the way to go; well done!

  15. I get tired of every development project that includes public space being somewhere that I'm expected to spend money. They always want me to shop and eat and drink. I get full. I don't want to keep eating. I don't want to buy anything. Why should I be made to feel like a vagrant if I'm not constantly streaming money out of my pocket? Spend– or don't bother stopping.

    But why does this type of public space keep developing? It's because profit-motivated developers are the only ones proposing them. And that's the problem. Governments need to invest in their role and do what they do best; and that is: provide those things that are necessary to a society that don't generate a direct profit. They need to assert their influence and not roll over and die every time a developer flashes fancy plans at them. Reject their consumer opportunities and build a park instead.

  16. Loved this TED Talk, Amanda is so right about the importance of parks in our large cities especially as they continue to grow, we must retain as much green space and public space as we can.


    00:12 Introducción
    00:43 Cambios transformadores en espacios públicos
    01:35 1er ESTUDIO DE CASO:
    Parque Paley Park, Manhattan. Comodidad y espacios verdes.
    04:44 Los Espacios públicos son oportunidades para:
    – Inversión comercial
    – Bién común de la ciudad
    05:04 2do ESTUDIO DE CASO:
    Battery Park City, en Bajo Manhattan. Los detalles hacen la diferencia 06:19
    06:59 Experiencia en la Comisión de Planificación de Nueva York
    08:00 Desafío y propuesta ante un crecimiento poblacional en una superficie limitada.
    10:51 3er ESTUDIO DE CASO:
    Zona costera de barrios Greenpoint y Williamsburg, en Brooklyn
    12:07 4to ESTUDIO DE CASO:
    Nuevo parque en la costa del Bajo Manhattan
    13:12 Lineamientos de solución. "¿Cuál es el truco?"
    14:11 5to ESTUDIO DE CASO:
    Parque High Line. Luchas arduas y continuas con la inversión comercial.

    17:27 Palabras finales:
    "Los lugares públicos tienen poder"
    "Los lugares públicos pueden cambiar cómo vives en una ciudad"

  18. I don't live in NY, but it was so touching to see someone working so hard for everyone to enjoy more of their life. Thank you for your work. Truly inspiring.

  19. I think she rocks! I love her! She’s 5,000% correct about just knowing a welcoming, pleasant, serene public space is nearby making all the difference in improving your view of your city. Been living 17 years now across from Meridian Hill Park on 16th in DC. Love it! My building, my apartment, all of it, my neighborhood. I think I’m good. We’ll see.👍🏼❤️😉

  20. so build higher but with green spaces and bars/coffe shops while improving commuting ? I'm all for it ! Building higher is reallly the only way to lower housing prices. And a beautiful city attract tourists . And communting lower poverty and pollution

  21. Thank you for all your work in making New York City a people place, a place I feel at home in. Now I have an image in my mind of the city planner who feels like I do when I get to return to the public places we city people all enjoy.

  22. Somebody come do this with Boston. They aren’t all just mean and maybe if the city seemed more welcoming the city itself would be kinder.

  23. London UK needs an Amanda Burden! No-one else there has anywhere near her vision, her values, her commitment, her skills.

  24. Wow i think this lady is really inspiring, and the places that were built look amazing!
    New York has certainly improved so to see.

  25. I just love the way she deliver the speech. The contents, her experience and etc is totally worth to spend 18 minutes here.

  26. Why only design "for the people" and not designing for every living being? She did a great job… But isn't this world supposed to be for types of animals to live in and not just "for the people" ???

  27. As an aspiring city planner who wants to make Columbus the world’s greatest city, this video sounds like my future goals. You’ll hear from me world.

  28. Important topics with well conceived development approaches, but Burden is a remarkably egocentric presenter – explanation, perhaps, of why so many of her efforts failed. Greenpoint and Williamsburg, for example, have massive new housing, but the promised waterfront parks are largely disconnected, unattractive failures. In sum, real estate developers got massive upzoning that generated huge profits, while city residents got minimal green space or quality of life improvements in return.

  29. Great insight, I'm now working on a historic city revitalization project in Gulangyu island, China. My main goal is to create an urban square and park while preserving the existing cultures of the place

  30. I'm all about public spaces. But if there is no shade, either from trees or structures, I don't use them. I'll walk through (I loved walking the High Line when I lived in NYC) but I won't sit down and read a book or write. None of the parks along the waterfronts she showed looked appealing to me at all. I would never go eat my lunch on my lunch break in a park like that. Who wants to sweat to death in the midday sun? But maybe a walk in the early morning or just as the sun is going down could be nice. But again, that is just going through.

    This may be by design, though, now that I think about it. I'm guessing public spaces designed to be just comfortable enough that people will walk through but not actually stay are the least amount of work. Create a path or two, add some planters, a garbage can and a bench and call it a day. This also offers the least amount of upkeep going forward. But spend money on infrastructure that would make a park comfortable at any time of day, i.e. Tables and chairs under trellises (or other shade structures), a public restroom and free wifi, then you have an outdoor space people actually want to spend more time in. Which means more money spent initially and much more money for upkeep. On top of that, you'll then have to think about all the people who are going to camp out there and how that will influence the usage of the park. People will stop going if they feel unsafe. And, for some reason, people without homes make people with homes feel unsafe.

    So, the questions is, do you design a bare bones park that the most people will kinda use or an awesome park that the homeless and a few "brave" souls will use? Let's have a TEDTalk on that!

  31. Completely new take on things, really interesting. Also the point about designing for people and the constant fight for public space is eye opening.

  32. Bravo for turning the High Line into a park. What a great idea.

    One thing, tho: isn't 10min to a transit stop kind of a long walk?

  33. 2000-luvulla Helsingin 'public spacet' suunnitellaan betonisiksi festarialustoiksi. Koska Sinnemäki. Koska Vihreät. #Kalasatama

  34. Peace.
    Thank you. People like yourself can contribute to the change we need to remain human like.. and that, in my opinion, is to find an alternative to the notion of having cities at all.
    This we need mainly for one reason, the well being of people.
    Cities detach people, there's always a cap on time in the banking hours, so we make artificial/fake social gestures. Cut throat culture develops in the name of competitiveness that's needed for the capitalism to work.
    Quality of life suffers due to having everything a city needs within a structured defined area. A fake sense of urgency to complete tasks, including the comfort breaks & even lunch. This artificial work mode only gives us a fake sense of importance of a busy person.
    Then we need drinks/drugs/loud music to unwind from spending only a few hours in the man-made hells on earth called cities.
    Do we not realise that cities are the playgrounds of the bankers & Wall street., their cronies & the followers!

    I reckon that people like yourself feel the need to bring more nature to the concrete jungles due to this. While this is commendable, it's still a temporary dressing like solution.

    A movement by thinking heads is needed to make the cities more spacious, or perhaps all together a new well thought out & consulted/debated solution to replace cities with other ways to offer people space, nature and human like life.


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