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Last weekend in Washington, D.C. the American Architecture Foundation (AAF) presented New York City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden with its 2011 Keystone Award. The annual accolade is bestowed upon an individual or organization from outside the architectural discipline for exemplary leadership in design, specifically design efforts focused on improving lives and transforming communities.
Burden, who has served as chair of the City Planning Commission and director of the Department of City Planning since 2002, recently returned from travels abroad, and AN caught up with her just before the awards ceremony to hear what she thinks New York can learn from cities like Barcelona and other street smarts.
“To be a dynamic, competitive global city, you have to grow and attract both talent and investment. It’s not just about architecture, but public space and the design of the streetscape. It comes down to how the city feels at street level. It has to be walkable and human scale, with trees, amenities, and vitality,” said Burden. “Barcelona, for example, is a city that is doing this brilliantly. Its mayors and its urban design prioritize the primacy of the public realm.” Over the past few decades Barcelona has enlivened its public plazas with sculpture and painting of both Spanish and foreign artists.
Burden’s curbside view stands in contrast to that of her most (in)famous predecessor, Robert Moses, who, ruled planning in New York City from the mid-1930s through the mid-1960s. “In that era, there was emphasis on large-scale connectivity. Design plans were drawn from a helicopter range, 400 or 500 feet in the air. But you have to go from the grand scale down to the neighborhood, the pedestrian scale, and even think about the speed at which pedestrians walk,” said Burden. Burden cites the redesign of Columbus Circle as successful public space in the city, noting its variety of seating, and she is eagerly anticipating the completion of the East River Esplanade (see more on SHoP’s plans here), where park-goers will have seating options galore: they can stretch out on lawns, sunbathe on chaise lounges, or contemplate river currents from bar seating and swings at the waters edge.
Thinking of traffic in terms of people, rather than cars, is something Burden attributes to her mentor William H. (“Holly”) Whyte, the urbanist and journalist known for his seminal studies of how people use urban public spaces. Whyte, who died in 1999, the same the year the AAF founded the Keystone Awards, surely would have been a contender for the honor himself. Since 1999, Keystone Award recipients include Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago, Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. of Charleston, S.C., the Museum of Modern Art, Save America’s Treasures, and the Pritzker Family of Chicago.