Amanda Burden: How Can Public Spaces Change A City's Character? For Amanda Burden, a city is defined by its public spaces. The former city commissioner of New York City explains why a promenade, a park or even a park bench, are vital to a city's ability to thrive.
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How Can Public Spaces Change A City's Character?

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How Can Public Spaces Change A City's Character?

How Can Public Spaces Change A City's Character?

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On the show today, ideas about building better cities - what makes them work and how they can thrive. And for former city commissioner of New York Amanda Burden, cities aren't defined by skyscrapers or roads but by their public spaces.

AMANDA BURDEN: Public spaces create value. And if you create a public space that people want to be, you can actually change the value around that space.

RAZ: And a good example of this in New York is Bryant Park. This is a place where, in the 1980s, you did not want to wander in there.

BURDEN: It was the greatest drug den in the entire city. You couldn't see into it, and if you were into it, you cannot see out of it. That's why it was a perfect place for drug dealers because they could do whatever they wanted to do undercover.

RAZ: That made it a very scary place, which made the surrounding neighborhood scary as well. People didn't even want to go to the nearby New York Public Library because they were worried about being mugged. But that changed when an urbanologist named William Holly Whyte...

BURDEN: One of the most incredible people I've ever known in my life, who really change my life...

RAZ: ...Said this is an easy fix.

BURDEN: So he proposed solutions, which was to take down the hedges around the edge of it and make it so you could see it from the outside.

RAZ: This is what Bryant Park sounds like today.


BURDEN: All of a sudden, Bryant Park became one of the most desirable addresses for companies in the entire city of New York. And now, it's one of the great public spaces of all time.

RAZ: Just attention to little details made the - kind of a sketchy park into this place where people wanted to actually have their lunch breaks. And so, instead of putting in things like fixed benches, Holly Whyte said put in tables and chairs that you could move around.

BURDEN: You can watch people do this. They come into the space, and they put their hands on the back of the chair, and they just move it about an inch or two.

RAZ: It becomes their own space.

BURDEN: Exactly. And then they sit down, and they're comfortable.

RAZ: What happened in Bryant Park was so inspiring to Amanda that about 20 years later, when she became the city commissioner of New York, her mission was to remake great public spaces because, to her, that's what helps cities thrive. Here's Amanda's TED Talk.


BURDEN: 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.

RAZ: How do public spaces transform cities?

BURDEN: Cities are meant to be for people. They are meant as places for people to come together. Otherwise, people will feel alone and isolated in a city. And they won't feel a sense of safety and comfort and belonging because public spaces really are the glue that holds a city together, and they're what make people want to live in a city and stay in a city.

RAZ: What makes a great public space?

BURDEN: Well, they have to have many places to sit - different choices of places to sit. And they have to have greenery - not only a canopy of a tree, but you feel greenery at the ground plan. So you actually feel in a healthy environment.

And the details are also so important. If you just have a bench in a public space that has no back to it, it's really kind of useless because you can't read your book. You'll find a developer will bend a bench, yes, but it will be only 13 inches wide, so you can't really sit on it (laughter), and you have to perch. All of these details are important, and all of these elements make people feel invited into a public space.


BURDEN: I was determined to create places that would make a difference in people's lives. There were two miles of abandoned, degraded waterfront in the neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn, impossible to get to and impossible to use. 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 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.

RAZ: If you think about the New York that you live in today and the New York you lived in, you know, 20 or more years ago, it's, in some ways, a different places, isn't it?

BURDEN: It's a very different place (laughter). But the first reason it's a different place is if you think back 15 years ago, when people thought of New York City, they thought just of Manhattan. They didn't think, as they do now, of Brooklyn as almost the center of New York City.

RAZ: Yeah.

BURDEN: We didn't think about our waterfront in 2000, and that was, I think, one of the things I'm most proud of, as city planning commissioner for Mike Bloomberg, was to recapture the waterfront, put parks on the waterfront. And the goal was to have the water become part of New Yorkers' everyday lives. And now there are little ferries that run between each borough so that the water becomes our connective tissue and, the way I like to think of it, as our greatest open space.

RAZ: Do you have a favorite public space in New York?

BURDEN: Well, yes, I do. I do and I'm very emotional about this space because I really put my heart into it. And it's the High Line.

RAZ: The High Line, before it was a popular park in New York, was an old, abandoned, elevated railroad. And when Amanda first saw it in 2000, it was slated for demolition.

BURDEN: And the amazing thing about it was when I was brought up there by the two young men who discovered it, it had become a self-seeded landscape, kind of a garden in the sky.

RAZ: Amanda says right then she fell in love with the High Line. And part of what makes it so special is that when you walk along it you see the city from this unique vantage point.

BURDEN: It's just at the right elevation at 23 feet in the air. So sometimes if you look on the access of streets you can see straight to the Hudson River, that you can see inland to the city, you can see the Empire State building. You can see the city from a whole new vantage point.


BURDEN: The High Line, even though it is widely known now and phenomenally popular, it is the most contested public space in the city. I mean, you might see a beautiful park, but not everyone does. You know, it's true. Commercial interests will always battle against public space. I mean, 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. And you know what? It might mean more money for the city, but the 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 17 million square feet at the Hudson Yards. And they came to me and proposed that they temporarily disassemble that third and final section. You know, 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. 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.

RAZ: I mean, it seems to me like the whole idea of a city and what makes a city special is it is a place for all kinds of people to interact, to bump into each other, to communicate.

BURDEN: Yes. A city has to be opportunity for everyone. Not only for housing, for jobs, a place where you can climb the ladder and make your own business, and I would say it's also a city that's fun - fun for everyone.


BURDEN: 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? 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.


RAZ: That's Amanda Burden, the former city commissioner for New York. She's now a principal at Bloomberg Associates where she travels around the world helping cities rethink their public spaces. You can see her entire talk at


TALKING HEADS: (Singing) Find a city find, find myself a city to live in. I will find a city, find myself a city to live in.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show on cities this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, you can go to You can also find hundreds more TED Talks at I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


TALKING HEADS: (Singing) Find a city, find myself a city to live in.

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