“Public spaces need vigilant champions”

When designing public spaces, New York’s chief city planner Amanda Burden says there’s a key set of questions for designers to ask themselves: “Would you come here? Where would you sit, what would you do here?”

She adds: “You don’t tap into your design expertise, you tap into your humanity.”

In a recent Ted Talk, Burden describes the daily struggles she faced in creating a number of city parks and public spaces, including one of Manhattan’s most celebrated: The High Line–an abandoned elevated railway track converted into a lush green park.  Developers had envisioned a series of shops where gardens exist today, saying it would be “terrific” and bring more money into the city. “No it would not be terrific, it would be a mall, not a park,” she recounted her response to them, to cheers from the Ted audience.

In other areas, developers lobbied hard to dismantle the High Line tracks in favor of towers. It took 9 months of daily negotiations to prevent that, she said. Burden also described the challenge of zoning new housing areas in over 100 neighborhoods and how it entailed thousands of hours of listening in meetings with the community.

“Communities can tell whether or not you understand their neighborhoods, it’s not something you can just fake.”

I urge anyone interested in the power of public space to watch this video, particularly Beirut municipal authorities, who have so far failed to heed the community’s calls for more green space, hold meetings with the public to discuss its plans or even launch a website.

Public spaces are powerful, Burden explains, because they have a strong influence on how people feel about a city and whether they choose to live there or not. Even when they are not utilized, residents feel better simply knowing that they exist. But it takes dedication to keep public spaces from decay and commercial interests.

Burden concludes: “Public spaces always need vigilant champions.” A far cry indeed from the demonization of activists we often hear in Beirut.

Watch the whole video here: