Driving change with passion

New York City is awarded the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize 2012 for its remarkable transformation in the last decade. Amanda Burden is the former Chair of City Planning Commission and Director of the Department of City Planning from 2002 - 2013. She shares on how her department is working towards achieving the city’s sustainable goals and spearheading development and change in New York.

Pier 1 Bridgeview Lawn
Pier 1 Bridgeview Lawn © New York City

How is the Department of City Planning working towards / supporting the goals set out in PlaNYC?

Amanda Burden (AB): PlaNYC, the Mayor’s ambitious sustainability agenda, is at the core of what we do. Underlying all our efforts as planners is a focus on sustainability. The City is working to reduce its carbon footprint, but also for achieving cleaner air and water, and promoting a better, healthier quality of life in our neighbourhoods.

Across the city, our plans are setting the conditions for sustainable, transit oriented growth, guided by comprehensive urban design master plans. These transit-oriented development policies will help us continue to shrink our per capita carbon footprint, which is already less than one-third the U.S. average. At the same time, we have taken action to protect the scale of low-density, suburban-style neighbourhoods. We have endeavoured to meet those objectives while keeping the essence and character of individual neighbourhoods. These initiatives are designed to accommodate a population of nine million New Yorkers projected by 2030, and support the diversity and vitality of our many neighbourhoods. At the same time for the last 10 years under the Bloomberg administration, we have focused on making sure that NYC is a vibrant, dynamic and exciting place to be.

New York City is now undergoing its biggest urban development since Robert Moses to accommodate the challenges of population growth and sustainability. How is the department actively spurring change in the city?

AB: New York City is growing, and we welcome that growth, but the key is that we must grow in the right places. Through long-range, comprehensive plans, we ensure that development can flourish in districts located near transportation hubs, providing new jobs and tax revenue for the city and its residents. The heart of this approach is to recognize the potential of new ways of doing business, using innovative approaches to unlock the potential of new places, and making strategic investments today for the long term health and stability of the city.

Central to what we do is foster economic development, ensuring that NYC competes at the global scale but also offers opportunities to all of those who come here to find a job, create a business and move up the ladder. New York is a city of immigrants, and our capacity to welcome newcomers has historically been central to our economic success and our job is to make sure that these opportunities continue to grow. We transform long neglected areas in to thriving centres of economic activity.

Equally important is an attention to quality of life. Underlying all of our efforts has been a focus on the human and neighbourhood scale of the city, and the energy and vitality of every street. We are judged through New Yorkers’ everyday experience of the city and responding to their needs is at the center of our approach.

Design is integral to economic development and to the success of a city. Good design contributes to a sense of place, to feelings of pride and to value throughout the city. With new public open spaces such as the East River Waterfront in Lower Manhattan, the Greenpoint/Williamsburg waterfront esplanade in Brooklyn and the High Line, we have changed people’s experience and perception of neighbourhoods and catalyzed investment and transformation.

Pier 1 Harbourview Lawn
Pier 1 Harbourview Lawn © New York City

Why is it so important to spur development in all five boroughs of the city and how is this coming along?

AB: We are a city of five Boroughs. When I became Commissioner, the Mayor made clear his commitment to creating economic opportunities in all five boroughs and this agenda became the basis upon which we started our intensive effort to create mixed-use central and regional business districts throughout the city. We proactively looked at areas where the city can grow and foster economic opportunity – not just in Midtown Manhattan, but wherever there is potential in the City, like in Jamaica, Queens and Downtown Brooklyn. These projects have spurred significant development in the five Boroughs from thousands of units of new housing in Downtown Brooklyn, Long Island City in Queens or the South Bronx to new retail and interest in St George in Staten Island. The population and economic growth of the city has benefited each and every one of the boroughs and is visible in a multitude of neighbourhoods across the city.

What are the key strategies used to spearhead this development and how does it promote liveable, sustainable communities?

AB: With all of our initiatives, our strategy is to foster walkable, bikeable and inviting neighbourhoods throughout the five boroughs. We focus on developing neighbourhoods that offer a wide range of housing choices, places to shop and eat, jobs and public open space. By creating what we call complete neighbourhoods, we help New Yorkers get all the services they need closer to their homes, creating vibrant, liveable communities and decreasing the need for the automobile.

NYC is a city of immigrants, where people with diverse backgrounds and interests call home. It is also projected that the population is set to grow to 9 million in 2030. What is being done to ensure that the newcomers can assimilate well into the neighbourhoods in the different boroughs?

AB: New York City welcomes immigrants, and with our growing population, we need to have a plan for where all of our new New Yorkers are going to live and work. With diversity, we need to offer a variety of lifestyles. This is where neighbourhood character preservation is critical. NYC needs to offer high density living but also low density living where one can own a single-family detached house with a yard and still stay in NY. Our strategy has been to offer a wide range of choices so New Yorkers can stay in the city as they form families, open businesses and age. NYC is a collection of neighbourhoods with very distinct features and this diversity is key to the success of the city in attracting and retaining residents.

How are communities involved in the planning of the city and their neighbourhoods and what are some of the challenges?

AB: Our plans mean nothing if they are not embraced by their communities. To make all of our projects possible, we have to build consensus with local communities, property owners, the development industry and elected officials. Planning is the continual process of juggling the myriad of needs and desires of all members of a community or region to create a feasible implementable vision of that community that will make people’s lives better while serving the broader and long-term needs of the city at large.

We spend an enormous amount of time working directly with communities to help them understand our proposals, and to understand first hand their concerns. You have to invest the time, to have their trust and to be able to have a plan that meets their needs. We have changed the way the planning process functions. It’s now a collaborative approach, incorporating community desires into a citywide policy. Good plans, real plans come from the often tedious, often frustrating and always complex and iterative process of involving everyone who has a stake in the community.

The High Line is a successful example of bottom-up initiative and is now a great public space for all to enjoy. What factors were considered during the rezoning of areas along The High Line and how has this impacted on the areas around it?

AB: The High Line is one of my favourite places in New York City. The first time I went up on the High Line in 2000, it was a transformative experience. Wild plantings had turned this elevated trestle into a magical linear garden in the sky linking neighbourhoods all the way from the Meat Market to the Hudson Yards at 34th Street. It was viewed as a blighting influence and was slated for imminent demolition. But clearly it was unique and many advocates, led by the indomitable Friends of the High Line, saw that it would add great value to the area and could become an organizing principle for a new neighbourhood. The first segment of the park opened in 2009, and we made history again in 2011 with the opening of Section 2. The design team carefully balanced the old and the new, recapturing the wild dynamic landscape and ‘otherworldliness’ that was there originally. What is incredible about the High Line is how it provides a floating vantage point to see the city – where you can be part of the city and apart from it, separated from the frenzied pace, below and beyond.

The plan would be that the High Line would connect three neighbourhoods and transform West Chelsea into a neighbourhood. A rezoning would allow for new housing, including affordable housing, a protected gallery district, and a High Line park as a unique attraction and organizing principle of a new neighbourhood. It could define West Chelsea and catalyze investment by being one of the most extraordinary parks in the world. The rezoning has been phenomenally successful with over 36 development projects worth more than US$2 billion of private investment catalyzed. And amazingly, the most famous architects in the world are clamouring to build here, making West Chelsea one of the architectural destinations in the city

The High Line exemplifies New York constantly reinventing itself. We took an old rail line that was going to be demolished and transformed it into one of the most unusual and exhilarating parks in the world. It’s also an excellent example of public-private partnerships where the City worked in close collaboration with the community to achieve something great.

High Line
The successful rezoning of the West Chelsea area has catalysed new private developments worth more than US$2billion. Image © DCP

Have you received any similar proposals from interest groups since? How are people empowered and more engaged to make real changes to their city?

AB: The High Line is a real David and Goliath story, and I think it is truly an inspiration for anyone who has an idea for their community. With hard work, vision and dedication, you can turn your dream into reality.

We are working with New Yorkers everyday to being their ideas and dreams into fruition and many of our rezoning came to life with community engagement.

Vision 2020: the NYC Comprehensive Waterfront Plan captures the evolving relationship between New Yorkers and waterfront areas. What is being done to reconnect New Yorkers to waterfronts and waterbodies and what are some of the challenges?

AB: The City turned its back on the water for many decades. Reclaiming and revitalizing the waterfront is a Mayoral priority and an important legacy of the Bloomberg administration. We need to connect our city through our waterfront and provide opportunities for residents of all the boroughs to enjoy this magnificent and underused resource. From the beginning of the Bloomberg Administration, the Mayor has put a premium improving New York’s 520 miles of waterfront with an understanding that opening up the waterfront is crucial for recreation, for respite, for housing and for water transport.

Since 1992, when the City’s first Comprehensive Waterfront Plan was released, we have reclaimed for public use hundreds of acres of land plus nearly 25 miles of shore line. One of our greatest achievements is the creation of new parks. The city has acquired over 300 acres of new waterfront parkland throughout the five boroughs, including the East River Esplanade South in Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn Bridge Park and Freshkills Park in Staten Island.

In 2010, we had an incredibly successful public outreach process to create Vision 2020 which lays out the City’s planning policies for the waterfront for the next 10 years and beyond. We released the plan in March 2011. This was an exciting opportunity to acknowledge the role our harbour plays in shaping our City. We have begun to consider the water as our sixth borough, and it deserves as much planning as we give to the land. New Yorkers are now taking ownership of the water, using it for recreation and demanding that access to it be increased so that it becomes part of our daily lives. Vision 2020 offer solutions, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, for a more active relationship between New Yorkers and the water. The goal of the plan is to secure that NYC’s future as one of the greatest waterfront cities in the world.

What is your vision for the city and what drives your passion in planning for NYC?

AB: It has been an incredible opportunity to work for a Mayor with a vision for a city that includes every borough. In almost 11 years under my tenure, the Commission has reviewed and approved 115 large scale rezoning initiatives covering over a third of the city. We are growing and transforming NYC one block at a time. And very importantly, we are growing but not changing. We do not want to lose the unique qualities that make up the diversity of NYC’s many neighbourhoods and has people fall in love with the city at the first place. A comprehensive strategy to shape the land use and built fabric of New York for the next century must work hand in hand with a granular approach.

Change requires a vision of what a city should be for its people, hard work, doing the job step by step, making people work together and understand their needs. It requires vision, execution, passion and persuasion. Equally important, one needs to know how to translate vision into reality. I can proudly say that for the last ten years, we have planned and executed to secure the future of the city for generations to come. O

This article was first published in April 2012. All images contained within this page are used with license and shall not be copied, modified, or reproduced.

Amanda Burden

Amanda M. Burden

Amanda M. Burden, FAICP, is Commissioner of the New York City Department of City Planning. Since her appointment by Mayor Bloomberg in 2002, she has spearheaded the largest planning effort in the city since 1961, setting the stage for sustainable development, reclaiming New York’s waterfront, designing new parkland and public spaces such as the High Line and promoting great architecture and urban design in all five boroughs.