Interview: New York City Planning Director Amanda Burden

Planetizen talks with city planning officials to get an insider's perspective on the planning issues facing cities. The first subject of this question-and-answer series is New York City Department of City Planning Director Amanda M. Burden.

Name

Amanda M. Burden

Last position and location

Director of Planning and Community Development, Center for Court Innovation, New York

Current position and location

Director, New York City Department of City Planning & Chair of the City Planning Commission

Brief Description of current position

As Director of the Department of City Planning, I am responsible for the city's physical and socioeconomic planning. I advise and assist the Mayor, in all matters relating to the development and improvement of the city, as well as in the preparation of strategic plans that have long-term implications for the city. In addition, I am the Chair of the City Planning Commission, a 13 member body, which holds public hearings and votes upon planning and land use applications throughout the city.

What is the most significant planning issue currently facing your community? What is the solution?

Ensuring and encouraging affordable housing for all New Yorkers and maintaining New York's economic diversity is one of the most important planning challenges facing New York City.

The Department of City Planning has been meeting this challenge through aggressive efforts to rezoning neighborhoods that can support significant housing development. To date, over 65 Department of City Planning initiated rezoning initiatives have been adopted or are in the public review process. Combined, these result in a projected build-out of over 35,000 housing units, a large degree of which will be affordable.

New York City has the most aggressive affordable housing program in the country. The Mayor's New Marketplace Initiative is going to produce and renovate 68,000 dwellings over five years and the City plans to produce and renovate a total of 168,000 dwellings over a decade. We've greatly expanded the City's Inclusionary Zoning program with rezonings in Hudson Yards and West Chelsea, Greenpoint-Williamsburg, and South Park Slope and will be doing more of this in coming rezonings.

Meeting our affordable housing needs is going to be result of careful collaboration between numerous city agencies, private and not-for-profit housing developers, elected officials, community groups and citizens. Housing alone isn't enough to maintain New York's economic diversity and vibrancy. Mixed use development is essential, as is ensuring the health of the city's neighborhoods and commercial, cultural and manufacturing districts.

In what ways do you think your community can improve?

We need to focus more on sustainable and green design. One of the big issues confronting us in the future is energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. This is not an abstract concern for us. Think of what even just a one foot rise in sea-level could do to a coastal city like New York. Buildings account for a significant share of fossil fuel consumption and we're going to have to do a better job at reducing such consumption. To ensure that we make more efficient use of our precious resources, the Mayor has just announced creation of an office of Long term Planning and Sustainability. It is charged with building on the administration's recent achievements in solid waste management and legislation on building green, by integrating sustainability goals and practices into every aspect of the City's long term strategic plan. Its first task will be embarking on a major greenhouse gas inventory for city government and the city overall.

Focusing on improving our green building technology may be a way to help ensure that affordable housing remains a reality. If developers can build green buildings for the same cost as conventional ones, then they can offset some of the rising land and energy costs -- costs that raise the purchase price or rent -- with lower operating costs. And it's not just housing; businesses (especially small ones), cultural institutions and non-profits, could benefit immensely from lower operating and energy costs. Investing now in sustainable development is crucial to ensuring New York's overall economic growth. In tomorrow's world, the bottom line for all real estate development will be green.

What elements of other cities would you like to see implemented in your city?

Chicago and Berlin have done some interesting work with green-roof technologies. Portland, OR and Seattle, WA are currently exploring innovative approaches to dealing with stormwater runoff and streetscape design. New York is already the least auto-dependent city in the United States, so hopefully other cities are will be following our example. Still, there are some areas, such as Bus Rapid Transit and an expanded network of bike paths where other cities are ahead of us.

We also need to work to encourage exciting, innovative architecture and design in New York City. Look at Barcelona. We can further enhance New York's vibrancy by creating places with a lively mix of uses -- residential, commercial and cultural. We must recognize that good design and economic development are closely intertwined.

What was the biggest planning-related hurdle your community faced in recent years and how was it dealt with?

One of the biggest challenges facing New York City is its growing population. Although we are by far the densest city in the country and already built out to our edges, our population is at a record high and still growing. We are seeing tremendous growth -- 1 million people in the next 20-30 years -- and we have been rapidly rezoning the city to make sure that our neighborhoods and communities and our Zoning Resolution are prepared to meet the challenges that come with that scale of growth.

We have sought to promote growth in a more sustainable manner, emphasizing growth near the City's extensive transit system while limiting growth in more automobile-oriented neighborhoods. We have introduced "Contextual Zoning" districts to ensure that growth won't mean the out-of-scale overdevelopment of some of New York truly unique neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, City Island, Park Slope, or Greenpoint-Williamsburg, to name a few. We are also introducing "Inclusionary Zoning" which gives density bonuses to developers who build or preserve affordable housing. This is a way of mitigating some of the displacement of New Yorkers who might otherwise be forced out by rising land prices and an ever-increasing pool of wealthier tenants and buyers.

We are also focusing on increasing and enhancing New York's open space and waterfront access so that people will have places of solitude, respite and recreation, even as our population grows. The importance of open space cannot be overstated. Our waterfront and open space projects -- the Highline (an abandoned elevated railbed), Brooklyn Bridge Park and East River Waterfront, Fresh Kills (the city's 22 acre landfill on Staten Island), etc. -- are wonderful economic drivers for the city and powerful symbols of reinvestment and change.

How has your perception of the field changed since you first entered the planning and development community?

What's really different is that when I was in planning school, the future of places like New York was very much in doubt. The country was suburbanizing and dense cities were seen as modern-day dinosaurs. Today, successful cities like New York, San Francisco or Boston are thriving so we have to respond to the challenges of growth instead of the challenges of decline.

What colleague had the most influence on you as a planner?

Holly Whyte. He understood that the quality of life in a city and everything that goes into it is the key to a city's success and desirability. He demonstrated that the street is the barometer of the health of city life, and that every new development must have a dynamic connection with the street to ensure its vitality. We must channel growth in ways that cultivate the energetic day and night life that is the essence of New York City's attraction for so many people. We can further enhance that vibrancy by creating places with a lively mix of uses -- residential, commercial and cultural. And, we must focus on details in public open space design to ensure that streets, plazas and parks are inviting and well used.

Do you have any advice for someone entering the field?

Walk the streets. You can't a make a plan for a place without knowing that place intimately and viscerally. A vibrant streetlife is the spirit of a neighborhood -- you can't get a sense of it from pictures or through the windows of a car. As a planner your responsibility is to help people make their communities stronger, healthier and more alive. You are abdicating your professional, and moral, responsibilities if you try to make changes to a neighborhood that you have not taken the time to get to know.

What do you wish you would have known before going to planning school/entering the field of planning and development?

There is no such thing as successful planning or a good plan without real, ongoing community involvement. An engaged community is what makes a neighborhood work. No one has all the answers -- not planners, not governments, not elected officials, not even community groups or citizens. Good plans, real plans that can do their job of making people's lives better, come from the often tedious, often frustrating, always complex and iterative process of involving everyone who has a stake in the community.

How would you define "planning" to a layperson in 100 words or less?

Planning is the development of a blueprint which will shape a city and its neighborhoods. Planning is the continual process of juggling the myriad of needs and desires of all members of a community or region -- residents, other citizens, community groups, business owners, elected officials, governments and agencies -- to create a feasible, implementable vision of that community or region that will makes people's lives better while serving the broader and long-term needs of a city at large.

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