“I believe the successful city is like a fabulous party. People stay because they are having a great time” – Amanda Burden 

Amanda Burden, 77, is an American urban planner and consultant. Amanda has worked as a director of the New York city department of the city planning Commission under Mayor Bloomberg from 2002 to 2013. Amanda is a relentless advocate of public spaces and the role of public spaces in daily human life. She has many positively impactful and famous projects mainly in New York and lower Manhattan. 

Here below, we will briefly review Amanda’s Tedtalk session about public spaces and cities focusing on the quest How public spaces make cities work?’ 

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Portrait of Amanda Burden ©Bloomberg Associates

‘‘When people think about cities; they tend to think of certain things. They think of buildings, and streets, and skyscrapers, and noisy caps but when I think about cities I think about people. Cities are fundamentally about people and where people go and where people meet are the core of what makes a city work.’’- Amanda Burden

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Amanda Burden at Work ©Emily Berl

Amanda speaks about the highly regarded relevance of public spaces, in-between places between buildings, as compared to the buildings themselves in cities. She has noted today’s most important transformative changes, and activities happening in public spaces to help strengthen her point in addition to mentioning the importance of planning lively public spaces to planning a great city. 

Successful spaces attract people while unsuccessful spaces keep people away, says Amanda by mentioning one of her first studied public spaces, Paley Park, in Manhattan that has a profound impact on New Yorkers. She said this space has an enormous impression at least for her. 

She has studied this park very early in her career because it happens to be built by her stepfather that helped her know places like Paley Park didn’t happen by accident. The place according to Amanda required incredible dedication and enormous attention to detail. But what was it about these spaces that made it special and drew people to it Amanda asks? 

First among other things were the comfortable movable chairs people used to sit, move a bit actually and stay awhile and interestingly people themselves attracted other people. She argues that this place provided quality of comfort and greenery for New York City. And unfortunately, this was not how cities were being designed. 

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Paley Park by Amanda Burden ©Jim.henderson

Amanda describes her profession as becoming a city planner meant being able to truly change the city she lived and loved. She also noted that open spaces in cities are opportunities in terms of commercial investment. But they are also opportunities for the common good of the city, and of two goals are often an unlined one another, and therein lies the conflict. 

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Mayor Bloomberg with Commissioner of City Planning Amanda Burden, announce new competition to build new housing model for small apartments ©Michael Schwartz 

Amanda raised the importance of details in public spaces and public space’s implementations that can make a difference. She redefines design as not just how something looks, it’s how your body feels on that seat in that space, and successful design always depends on very individual experience. 

Amanda has put her exemplary, and incredible twelve and more years challenging but an opportunistic role as Mike Bloomberg’s planning commissioner in redoing New York’s zoning byzoning124 neighborhood since 2002 that counts 40% of New York and includes 12,500 blocks. 

In this intervention under her commissioner role, 90% of all new development in New York is within a 10-minute walk of a subway. In other words, nobody in those new buildings needs to own a car. Impressive, and innovative! Isn’t it? Off course! But Amanda thought her mission was not rezoning. Someone can’t feel and see zoning, rather my mission is always to create great public spaces, she said. 

So, in the areas where she has zoned for significant development, she was determined to create places that can make a difference in people’s lives. She describes this act using her regenerating public space planning mission on two miles of an abandoned, and degraded waterfront in the neighborhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn that was impossible to get to and impossible to use. 

Zoning at this place was massive according to Amanda indeed she envisioned magnificent waterfront parks. Amanda added her public space to an additional new and habitable park project in lower Manhattan which had a messy water edge before 911 to help her public spaces advocacy.  

Amanda has also added her very unusual project that has become phenomenally popular, and called ‘The High Line’ that was the most contested public space in the city, and put on an elevated railway. The elevated railway has a train that passes through three neighborhoods on Manhattan’s west side. When the train stops running, the place will be a self-seated landscape, a kind of garden in the sky. A place someone can easily fall in love with! 

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The High Line’ by Amanda Burden ©Sally Morrison

‘’When I saw it, The High Line, for the first time, honestly……..I fall in love the way you fall in love with a person honestly.’’ Says Amanda when she was appointed to work on the project. Thus, the main and prior task for her was to save the two sections of the Highline from demolition on which she is heard successful after nine months of nonstop daily negotiation to finally get the signed agreement that prohibits the demolition of the two sections of the Highline.  

Amanda strongly and passionately believes no matter how popular and successful a public space may be, it can never be taken for granted. Public spaces always need vigilant champions. Not only to claim them at the outside for public use but to design them for the people that use them, then to maintain them, to ensure they are for everyone that they are not violated, invaded, abandoned, or ignored. 

‘If there is anyone 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 an even greater number of people who feel about their city just knowing that they are there. Public space can change how you live in the city, how you feel about a city whether you choose one city over another, says Amanda when she shares the highly regarded natural merit of having more public spaces in cities. 

It is importantly honest that a city as an organism crucially needs to breathe using its green elements and claimed and reclaimed public spaces, and be livable true to its name in line with layers including economic realities, population growth, and many other urban aspects. Claiming, reclaiming, and designing public spaces as Amanda said is being a social titan of enormous positive impacts in the built environment and humanity. 

Nahom Teklu
Author

Nahom is an interdiciplinary Architect and built environment practitioner who strives to use the untapped potential of architecture and experiential design for working on the holistic betterment of livelihoods. He has an initiative which works to build and re-build proactive urban community in Ethiopia.

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