How Public Spaces Make Cities Work

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014
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New York's High Line
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New York’s High Line, a public park elevated over the streets of Manhattan’s west side, has helped to spark an urban revolution.

The High Line reclaimed natural space in New York, a concept that is now being emulated in cities including Chicago, Helsinki, London, Paris and Sydney.

Amanda Burden

Amanda Burden, New York’s chief city planner under the Bloomberg administration

While greening public spaces can improve air quality, absorb carbon and help reduce the urban heat island effect, public space is ultimately about prioritising pedestrians.

In a bid to create life between buildings, New York’s then-chief city planner Amanda Burden set to revitalise the city through a series of public space projects including the High Line and the Brooklyn Waterfront.

In her recent TED talk, How Public Spaces Make Cities Work, Burden listed the benefits of public spaces – spaces designed for the pure enjoyment of residents.

She began by discussing how people generally define cities: buildings, streets, skyscrapers and noisy cabs.

Paley Park, New York

Paley Park, New York

“Cities are fundamentally about people, and where people go and where people meet are at the core of what makes a city work,” she said. “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.”

Burden’s drew on her background as an animal behaviourist to study how people in cities use city public spaces. In her first study of Paley Park in midtown Manhattan, she saw that public spaces needed to be flexible and offer comfort and greenery.

“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,” she said.

Masterplan: Greenpoint Williamsburg Waterfront

Masterplan: Greenpoint Williamsburg Waterfront

Through her observations, Burden found the design of public space design in New York had to be shifted. She referred to the “spartan” inspired spaces that are often preferred by modern architects and developers but generally avoided by people.

“They not only look desolate, they are downright dangerous,” she said. “I mean, where would you sit here? What 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?”

Burden noted there are challenges in creating positive public spaces, namely fights with commercial advocates and the high attention to detail required to create them.

“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 lays the conflict,” she said.

High Line: Most Contested Public Space in New York

High Line: the most contested public space in New York

Her first opportunity to “fight for a great public open space” came in the 1980s, when she lead a team to rejuvenate the a gigantic landfill called Battery Park City, which had sat barren for 10 years.

Burden insisted on a mock up in wood at scale and made her way around the space ensuring everything from seating material to lighting to views and greening opportunities were suitable.

“Details really do make a difference,” she said. “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.”

Upon being commissioned by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Burden’s public spaces were designed to cater for the forecasted growth from eight million to nine million in the city.

Proposed: The Goods Line, Sydney

The proposed Goods Line, Sydney

“If we couldn’t spread out, we had to go up,” she said. “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 on of our greatest assets: our transit system.”

Burden then began the huge task of rezoning the city and, over the course of 12 years, managed to rezone 124 neighbourhoods, 40 per cent of the city and 12,5000 blocks. This now means that 90 per cent of all new development in New York is within a 10 minute walk of a subway.

One of her projects was the Greenpoint-Williamsburg Waterfront which will ultimately result in an abandoned space being transformed to over 50 acres of new parkland along the East River waterfront.

Another park in Lower Manhattan had seats installed to the water’s edge, encouraging people to sit and stay with space to enjoy lunch or use their laptop.

Burden also credits major changes across the city that has seen car parks upgraded to pop up cafes, tables and chairs while sidewalk cafes now dominate the streets. She finds, however, that keeping these spaces is a challenge.

Melbourne's Urban Forest Strategy

Melbourne’s Urban Forest Strategy

Her crowning achievement remains the one mile elevated High Line which opened in 2009 and brings in over four million visitors a year. While it was globally celebrated, Burden said the High Line was actually the most contested public space in the city.

Commercial developers have proposed removing plantings and having retailers across the High Line. They have also proposed temporarily disassembling the third and final section of the High Line. Burden spent nine months fighting them, saying that public spaces should never be taken for granted.

“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,” she said.

“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.”

In Australia, Sydney is looking to turn a 500-metre rail corridor that runs from Ultimo to Haymarket into The Goods Line. The space will be pedestrian focused, offering public squares, event space, cycling routes, tiered stair seating and an abundance of greenery.

In Melbourne, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle unveiled an Urban Forest Strategy and draft Open Space Strategy designed to “ensure healthier, greener and more resilient landscapes and open spaces over the next 100 years.”

The City of Melbourne manages more than 500 hectares of open space equating to almost 15 per cent of the total area of the city. The Urban Forest strategy will look to contribute to climate change aiming to increase tree canopy cover from 22 per cent to 40 per cent by 2040.

All of these strategies and projects present the opportunity to deliver lifestyle to inhabitants of the growing concrete jungle while also reducing carbon emissions as nature reclaims the landscape and people reclaim the city streets.

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