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TED2014

Amanda Burden: How public spaces make cities work

March 20, 2014

More than 8 million people are crowded together to live in New York City. What makes it possible? In part, it’s the city’s great public spaces — from tiny pocket parks to long waterfront promenades — where people can stroll and play. Amanda Burden helped plan some of the city’s newest public spaces, drawing on her experience as, surprisingly, an animal behaviorist. She shares the unexpected challenges of planning parks people love -- and why it's important.

Amanda Burden - Urban planner
As New York’s chief city planner under the Bloomberg administration, Amanda Burden led revitalization of some of the city's most familiar features -- from the High Line to the Brooklyn waterfront. Full bio

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When people think about cities,
00:12
they tend to think of certain things.
00:14
They think of buildings and streets
00:16
and skyscrapers, noisy cabs.
00:18
But when I think about cities,
00:21
I think about people.
00:23
Cities are fundamentally about people,
00:25
and where people go
00:28
and where people meet
00:30
are at the core of what makes a city work.
00:32
So even more important than buildings in a city
00:35
are the public spaces in between them.
00:38
And today, some of the most transformative
00:41
changes in cities
00:44
are happening in these public spaces.
00:46
So I believe that lively, enjoyable public spaces
00:49
are the key to planning a great city.
00:53
They are what makes it come alive.
00:56
But what makes a public space work?
01:00
What attracts people to successful public spaces,
01:03
and what is it about unsuccessful places
01:07
that keeps people away?
01:09
I thought, if I could answer those questions,
01:12
I could make a huge contribution to my city.
01:15
But one of the more wonky things about me
01:19
is that I am an animal behaviorist,
01:21
and I use those skills not to study animal behavior
01:25
but to study how people in cities
01:28
use city public spaces.
01:31
One of the first spaces that I studied
01:34
was this little vest pocket park called Paley Park
01:37
in midtown Manhattan.
01:40
This little space became a small phenomenon,
01:43
and because it had such a profound impact
01:47
on New Yorkers,
01:50
it made an enormous impression on me.
01:51
I studied this park very early on in my career
01:55
because it happened to have been built
01:57
by my stepfather,
01:59
so I knew that places like Paley Park
02:01
didn't happen by accident.
02:03
I saw firsthand that they required
02:06
incredible dedication
02:08
and enormous attention to detail.
02:10
But what was it about this space
02:13
that made it special and drew people to it?
02:15
Well, I would sit in the park and watch very carefully,
02:18
and first among other things
02:21
were the comfortable, movable chairs.
02:23
People would come in, find their own seat,
02:26
move it a bit, actually, and then stay a while,
02:29
and then interestingly,
02:32
people themselves attracted other people,
02:34
and ironically, I felt more peaceful
02:37
if there were other people around.
02:40
And it was green.
02:42
This little park provided what New Yorkers crave:
02:44
comfort and greenery.
02:47
But my question was,
02:50
why weren't there more places with greenery
02:52
and places to sit in the middle of the city
02:55
where you didn't feel alone,
02:57
or like a trespasser?
03:00
Unfortunately, that's not how cities
03:02
were being designed.
03:04
So here you see a familiar sight.
03:06
This is how plazas have been
designed for generations.
03:10
They have that stylish, Spartan look
03:14
that we often associate with modern architecture,
03:17
but it's not surprising that people
03:21
avoid spaces like this.
03:24
They not only look desolate,
03:25
they feel downright dangerous.
03:28
I mean, where would you sit here?
03:30
What would you do here?
03:34
But architects love them.
03:36
They are plinths for their creations.
03:40
They might tolerate a sculpture or two,
03:43
but that's about it.
03:45
And for developers, they are ideal.
03:47
There's nothing to water, nothing to maintain,
03:50
and no undesirable people to worry about.
03:52
But don't you think this is a waste?
03:56
For me, becoming a city planner
04:00
meant being able to truly change the city
04:02
that I lived in and loved.
04:05
I wanted to be able to create places
04:07
that would give you the feeling that you got
04:09
in Paley Park,
04:11
and not allow developers to
build bleak plazas like this.
04:13
But over the many years,
04:18
I have learned how hard it is
04:19
to create successful, meaningful,
04:22
enjoyable public spaces.
04:24
As I learned from my stepfather,
04:26
they certainly do not happen by accident,
04:28
especially in a city like New York,
04:30
where public space has to
be fought for to begin with,
04:33
and then for them to be successful,
04:36
somebody has to think very hard
04:38
about every detail.
04:41
Now, open spaces in cities are opportunities.
04:43
Yes, they are opportunities
for commercial investment,
04:46
but they are also opportunities for the common good
04:50
of the city,
04:54
and those two goals are often
not aligned with one another,
04:56
and therein lies the conflict.
04:59
The first opportunity I had to fight
05:02
for a great public open space was in the early 1980s,
05:04
when I was leading a team of planners
05:08
at a gigantic landfill called Battery Park City
05:10
in lower Manhattan on the Hudson River.
05:13
And this sandy wasteland had lain barren
05:16
for 10 years,
05:19
and we were told, unless we found a developer
05:20
in six months, it would go bankrupt.
05:23
So we came up with a radical,
05:25
almost insane idea.
05:27
Instead of building a park
05:29
as a complement to future development,
05:31
why don't we reverse that equation
05:34
and build a small but very high-quality
05:36
public open space first,
05:39
and see if that made a difference.
05:41
So we only could afford to build a two-block section
05:44
of what would become a mile-long esplanade,
05:47
so whatever we built had to be perfect.
05:51
So just to make sure, I insisted
05:54
that we build a mock-up
05:57
in wood, at scale, of the railing and the sea wall.
05:59
And when I sat down on that test bench
06:03
with sand still swirling all around me,
06:06
the railing hit exactly at eye level,
06:09
blocking my view and ruining my experience
06:12
at the water's edge.
06:15
So you see, details really do make a difference.
06:17
But design is not just how something looks,
06:21
it's how your body feels on that seat in that space,
06:25
and I believe that successful design always depends
06:31
on that very individual experience.
06:34
In this photo, everything looks very finished,
06:37
but that granite edge, those lights,
06:42
the back on that bench,
06:44
the trees in planting,
06:46
and the many different kinds of places to sit
06:48
were all little battles that turned this project
06:50
into a place that people wanted to be.
06:54
Now, this proved very valuable 20 years later
06:58
when Michael Bloomberg asked me to be
07:01
his planning commissioner
07:03
and put me in charge of shaping
07:05
the entire city of New York.
07:07
And he said to me on that very day,
07:09
he said that New York was projected
07:11
to grow from eight to nine million people.
07:13
And he asked me,
07:16
"So where are you going to put
07:18
one million additional New Yorkers?"
07:20
Well, I didn't have any idea.
07:22
Now, you know that New York does
07:25
place a high value on attracting immigrants,
07:28
so we were excited about the prospect of growth,
07:31
but honestly, where were we going to grow
07:34
in a city that was already built out to its edges
07:37
and surrounded by water?
07:40
How were we going to find housing
07:43
for that many new New Yorkers?
07:44
And if we couldn't spread out,
07:47
which was probably a good thing,
07:48
where could new housing go?
07:50
And what about cars?
07:53
Our city couldn't possibly handle any more cars.
07:55
So what were we going to do?
07:59
If we couldn't spread out, we had to go up.
08:02
And if we had to go up,
08:06
we had to go up in places
08:07
where you wouldn't need to own a car.
08:08
So that meant using one of our greatest assets:
08:10
our transit system.
08:13
But we had never before thought
08:16
of how we could make the most of it.
08:17
So here was the answer to our puzzle.
08:20
If we were to channel and redirect
08:23
all new development around transit,
08:26
we could actually handle that population increase,
08:29
we thought.
08:32
And so here was the plan,
08:34
what we really needed to do:
08:36
We needed to redo our zoning --
08:38
and zoning is the city planner's regulatory tool --
08:41
and basically reshape the entire city,
08:44
targeting where new development could go
08:47
and prohibiting any development at all
08:49
in our car-oriented,
08:52
suburban-style neighborhoods.
08:53
Well, this was an unbelievably ambitious idea,
08:56
ambitious because communities
08:59
had to approve those plans.
09:02
So how was I going to get this done?
09:05
By listening. So I began listening,
09:08
in fact, thousands of hours of listening
09:11
just to establish trust.
09:15
You know, communities can tell
09:17
whether or not you understand their neighborhoods.
09:19
It's not something you can just fake.
09:21
And so I began walking.
09:24
I can't tell you how many blocks I walked,
09:27
in sweltering summers, in freezing winters,
09:29
year after year,
09:32
just so I could get to understand
09:34
the DNA of each neighborhood
09:36
and know what each street felt like.
09:38
I became an incredibly geeky zoning expert,
09:41
finding ways that zoning could address
09:44
communities' concerns.
09:46
So little by little, neighborhood by neighborhood,
09:48
block by block,
09:51
we began to set height limits
09:52
so that all new development
09:54
would be predictable and near transit.
09:56
Over the course of 12 years,
10:00
we were able to rezone
10:01
124 neighborhoods,
10:04
40 percent of the city,
10:07
12,500 blocks, so that now,
10:09
90 percent of all new development of New York
10:14
is within a 10-minute walk of a subway.
10:17
In other words, nobody in those new buildings
10:20
needs to own a car.
10:22
Well, those rezonings were exhausting
10:24
and enervating and important,
10:28
but rezoning was never my mission.
10:31
You can't see zoning and you can't feel zoning.
10:34
My mission was always to create
10:37
great public spaces.
10:39
So in the areas where we zoned
for significant development,
10:41
I was determined to create places
10:45
that would make a difference in people's lives.
10:47
Here you see what was
10:50
two miles of abandoned, degraded waterfront
10:52
in the neighborhoods of Greenpoint
10:55
and Williamsburg in Brooklyn,
10:56
impossible to get to and impossible to use.
10:58
Now the zoning here was massive,
11:02
so I felt an obligation to create
11:04
magnificent parks on these waterfronts,
11:07
and I spent an incredible amount of time
11:10
on every square inch of these plans.
11:13
I wanted to make sure that there were
11:16
tree-lined paths from the upland to the water,
11:18
that there were trees and plantings everywhere,
11:21
and, of course, lots and lots of places to sit.
11:23
Honestly, I had no idea how it would turn out.
11:27
I had to have faith.
11:31
But I put everything that I had studied and learned
11:32
into those plans.
11:35
And then it opened,
11:37
and I have to tell you, it was incredible.
11:39
People came from all over the city
11:42
to be in these parks.
11:44
I know they changed the lives
of the people who live there,
11:46
but they also changed New Yorkers' whole image
11:49
of their city.
11:52
I often come down and watch people
11:53
get on this little ferry
11:55
that now runs between the boroughs,
11:57
and I can't tell you why,
11:59
but I'm completely moved
12:00
by the fact that people are using it
12:02
as if it had always been there.
12:04
And here is a new park in lower Manhattan.
12:06
Now, the water's edge in lower Manhattan
12:09
was a complete mess before 9/11.
12:12
Wall Street was essentially landlocked
12:15
because you couldn't get anywhere near this edge.
12:17
And after 9/11, the city had very little control.
12:19
But I thought if we went
12:23
to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation
12:25
and got money to reclaim this two miles
12:27
of degraded waterfront
12:30
that it would have an enormous effect
12:32
on the rebuilding of lower Manhattan.
12:34
And it did.
12:36
Lower Manhattan finally has a public waterfront
12:37
on all three sides.
12:41
I really love this park.
12:43
You know, railings have to be higher now,
12:45
so we put bar seating at the edge,
12:47
and you can get so close to the water
12:50
you're practically on it.
12:52
And see how the railing widens
12:54
and flattens out so you can lay down
12:56
your lunch or your laptop.
12:57
And I love when people come there
12:59
and look up and they say,
13:01
"Wow, there's Brooklyn, and it's so close."
13:03
So what's the trick?
13:07
How do you turn a park
13:09
into a place that people want to be?
13:11
Well, it's up to you,
13:14
not as a city planner but as a human being.
13:17
You don't tap into your design expertise.
13:20
You tap into your humanity.
13:24
I mean, would you want to go there?
13:27
Would you want to stay there?
13:30
Can you see into it and out of it?
13:32
Are there other people there?
13:35
Does it seem green and friendly?
13:37
Can you find your very own seat?
13:39
Well now, all over New York City,
13:43
there are places where you can
13:46
find your very own seat.
13:47
Where there used to be parking spaces,
13:49
there are now pop-up cafes.
13:52
Where Broadway traffic used to run,
13:54
there are now tables and chairs.
13:56
Where 12 years ago, sidewalk
cafes were not allowed,
13:58
they are now everywhere.
14:01
But claiming these spaces for public use
14:03
was not simple,
14:06
and it's even harder to keep them that way.
14:08
So now I'm going to tell you a story
14:10
about a very unusual park called the High Line.
14:12
The High Line was an elevated railway.
14:16
(Applause)
14:18
The High Line was an elevated railway
14:25
that ran through three neighborhoods
14:27
on Manhattan's West Side,
14:29
and when the train stopped running,
14:31
it became a self-seeded landscape,
14:33
a kind of a garden in the sky.
14:35
And when I saw it the first time,
14:37
honestly, when I went up on that old viaduct,
14:39
I fell in love the way you fall in love with a person,
14:42
honestly.
14:45
And when I was appointed,
14:46
saving the first two sections of the High Line
14:48
from demolition became my first priority
14:50
and my most important project.
14:54
I knew if there was a day that I didn't
14:56
worry about the High Line, it would come down.
15:00
And the High Line,
15:03
even though it is widely known now
15:05
and phenomenally popular,
15:08
it is the most contested public space in the city.
15:10
You might see a beautiful park,
15:13
but not everyone does.
15:16
You know, it's true, commercial interests
15:19
will always battle against public space.
15:21
You might say,
15:25
"How wonderful it is that more than
15:26
four million people come from all over the world
15:28
to visit the High Line."
15:30
Well, a developer sees just one thing: customers.
15:32
Hey, why not take out those plantings
15:37
and have shops all along the High Line?
15:39
Wouldn't that be terrific
15:41
and won't it mean a lot more money for the city?
15:43
Well no, it would not be terrific.
15:45
It would be a mall, and not a park.
15:48
(Applause)
15:51
And you know what, it might mean
15:59
more money for the city,
16:00
but a city has to take the long view,
16:02
the view for the common good.
16:06
Most recently, the last section of the High Line,
16:09
the third section of the High Line,
16:13
the final section of the High Line,
16:15
has been pitted against development interests,
16:16
where some of the city's leading developers
16:19
are building more than 17 million square feet
16:21
at the Hudson Yards.
16:24
And they came to me and proposed
16:26
that they "temporarily disassemble"
16:28
that third and final section.
16:31
Perhaps the High Line didn't fit in
16:34
with their image of a gleaming city of skyscrapers
16:36
on a hill.
16:39
Perhaps it was just in their way.
16:40
But in any case, it took nine months
16:43
of nonstop daily negotiation
16:46
to finally get the signed agreement
16:48
to prohibit its demolition,
16:50
and that was only two years ago.
16:52
So you see, no matter how popular
16:56
and successful a public space may be,
16:58
it can never be taken for granted.
17:01
Public spaces always -- this is it saved --
17:04
public spaces always need vigilant champions,
17:06
not only to claim them at the outset for public use,
17:10
but to design them for the people that use them,
17:14
then to maintain them to ensure
17:17
that they are for everyone,
17:19
that they are not violated, invaded,
17:21
abandoned or ignored.
17:24
If there is any one lesson
17:26
that I have learned in my life as a city planner,
17:28
it is that public spaces have power.
17:31
It's not just the number of people using them,
17:35
it's the even greater number of people
17:38
who feel better about their city
17:40
just knowing that they are there.
17:42
Public space can change how you live in a city,
17:45
how you feel about a city,
17:49
whether you choose one city over another,
17:51
and public space is one of
the most important reasons
17:54
why you stay in a city.
17:57
I believe that a successful city
18:00
is like a fabulous party.
18:02
People stay because they are having a great time.
18:05
Thank you.
18:09
(Applause)
18:11
Thank you. (Applause)
18:17

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Amanda Burden - Urban planner
As New York’s chief city planner under the Bloomberg administration, Amanda Burden led revitalization of some of the city's most familiar features -- from the High Line to the Brooklyn waterfront.

Why you should listen

With a keen eye for detail that extends to the most humble park bench -- and a gift for convincing developers and bureaucrats of her vision -- former New York City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden rebuilt New York City.

Taking inspiration from her mentor, the influential urban theorist William H. “Holly” Whyte, Burden stepped out of the society pages (she's Babe Paley's daughter) and into a high-profile development career, which started with the planning and design of Battery Park and brought her to the Bloomberg administration. Her high design standards and flair for human-scale public spaces (as she told the Wall Street Journal, "You can actually change a city by a small stroke") ensures that her legacy will be an enduring element of New York’s urban landscape. Post-mayoralty, she is joining Mike Bloomberg's newly established global consultancy, Bloomberg Associates, as one of the founding Principals (along with Janette Sadik-Khan, former traffic commisioner).

The original video is available on TED.com
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