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Amanda Burden: Activist for Urbanity

Interview by Jane Kolleeny
November 2011

Amanda Burden serves as director of the New York City Department of Planning and chair of the City Planning Commission. She is a proponent of improving access to the Brooklyn waterfronts, enhancing commuter rail into the city, and reexamining zoning plans. Burden previously worked for the New York State Urban Development Corporation and Battery Park City. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1976, and later earned a master's degree in urban planning from Columbia University.

Amanda Burden
Photo © David Eustace
Amanda Burden in her Manhattan office.
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GreenSource: While you were in college, you developed an interest in sustainability; in fact, you wrote your master's thesis on waste management.

Amanda Burden: Yes. I wrote about solid waste—and more specifically, recycling materials. When I was getting my master's at Columbia, I was also sitting as a member of the Planning Commission. And I thought: What are some of the most intractable and difficult issues a city has that people don't understand? One was sewage and the other was solid waste. I was really fascinated by the issue of how we handle our solid waste. We have to transport it miles and miles and miles either by truck or train to another state where we pay to have it disposed of. I felt this was an impossible and untenable situation. If you don't re-use what you throw away, it's going to end up in a landfill in some other state. So the question was: Who was going to buy this recyclable waste? Because if it's not bought, it's not reused. I spent a lot of time talking to people about what they would buy and in what condition. They've made tremendous progress since I wrote my thesis in 1992, but who will buy recyclable materials is still key to attacking the problem of solid waste management.

GS: I know it's not your department, but is recycling a viable solution in New York City?

AB: In a very dense city, recycling is complicated because you have to store your recyclables until they can be picked up. Ideally, there should be space in every new building to store separated recyclables because if, in the end, they're going to be marketable, they need to be separated first. That was actually the title of my thesis, "Marketing Recyclable Materials." People fell asleep when I would explain it, but I thought it was really fascinating.

GS: How is this early interest in recycling reflected in the work you do now for the City of New York?

AB: Recycling is an important part of urban sustainability; a main focus for the Bloomberg administration with the creation of PlaNYC. The idea goes beyond solid waste if you take something that has been used for one purpose and turn it into something new. In New York City, we have taken pieces of our old infrastructure and reinvented them. Among the many new public open spaces I have worked on, the High Line and the East River Waterfront Esplanade stand out as examples of recycled urban infrastructure. The High Line, one of the most exhilarating and innovative parks in the world, was an abandoned elevated rail line slated for demolition. Instead of tearing it down, we reused it and turned it into a magical garden in the sky. The East River Waterfront Esplanade sits right under the elevated FDR highway in Lower Manhattan, and, rather than ignore the highway viaduct, we incorporated it into the park's design by painting it lavender, lighting it, and putting seating and tables underneath it so that it serves as shade and shelter from the weather. The project has completely transformed Lower Manhattan and reconnected residents, workers, and tourists with the water's edge.

GS: How does planning work fit into PlaNYC?

AB: PlaNYC is an incredibly important legacy of the Bloomberg administration. It is our blueprint for sustainability—cleaner air, cleaner water and a healthier lifestyle for New Yorkers. For the last nine years, zoning has been an instrumental tool in helping us ensure the sustainable growth of New York City by encouraging development only in areas well-served by mass transit. Using zoning in unique and creative ways has also allowed us to create a more pedestrian-friendly environment and improve alternatives to the automobile. For instance, all new buildings must plant street trees, and they must also provide secure bike parking, which means better mobility and cleaner air. One of our newest initiatives is expanding "car-share," a simple way to reserve a car by the hour. Because car share members own fewer cars and drive less, we anticipate it will contribute to cleaner air, quieter streets, and an improved quality of life. What we are focusing on right now is energy efficiency—80 percent of the energy that we use in this city is from our buildings. And even though we're in one of the most sustainable cities—if not the most sustainable city—in the entire country, improving the energy efficiency of our buildings is key. We are looking at our zoning code and proposing changes to eliminate impediments to the construction and retrofitting of energy-efficient buildings, and to encourage the use of renewable energy.

GS: Could you comment on the role of nature in sustainable design?

AB: Creating great public open spaces throughout the five boroughs is truly one of my passions, and this was inspired by my mentor, the legendary urbanologist Holly Whyte [William H. Whyte]. Whyte showed me how vibrant streets and public spaces were the bedrock of a successful city. Around that time, my stepfather William S. Paley created Paley Park and I saw firsthand what an extraordinary effect it had on the public. I decided creating great, well-designed public spaces would be an enduring way to contribute to the city, and that choice led me to study city planning. To ensure that New Yorkers have access to nature through public open space, I created design requirements for all privately owned public spaces as well as for waterfront public open spaces. I want to make sure that they are inviting to the public, with a variety of seating in both sun and shade, generous plantings and a diversity of experiences, whether you are there for work, respite, or socialization.


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