The water works - Issue 55 - Magazine | Monocle

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With walls covered in colourful sketches and a central table overflowing with drawings and maps, the urban design division of New York City’s Department of City Planning feels more like an art school studio than a dreary municipal office. “When I first got here I asked people to draw what they thought things should look like and some of them responded by saying they hadn’t drawn anything in three decades,” says Amanda Burden, the city planning commissioner. “Now what we do first, before we even talk about zoning, is draw.”

Responsible for the orderly growth and development of the city, Burden and her team sketch everything from ideal pavement widths to skyscraper heights, focusing on the details that over the past decade have transformed New York from a concrete jungle into a city of waterside parks and vibrant public spaces. Sitting in an office brimming with drawings and maps of available green space, Burden’s passion for making her city more liveable is impossible to ignore. She was appointed in 2002 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and is known to walk the streets with a tape measure in hand, getting to know each neighbourhood’s idiosyncrasies before making any planning recommendations. She cites her approach as the result of time spent with William H Whyte, the American urbanologist who taught her that the health of a city can be measured by the vibrancy of its streets and public spaces. Her appetite for change has led to the rezoning of over a third of the city – tweaking permitted building heights here, offering developers incentives to build parkland there and reshaping New York’s five boroughs into more sustainable and enjoyable communities.

“The details in design make all the difference when deciding if a space is successful,” she says. “If a seat isn’t 18 inches deep, nobody is going to sit there. If the seatbacks aren’t at a 15 per cent incline, it won’t be comfortable and people aren’t going to stay there. I work from a global and very ambitious scale but we have to judge ourselves on how it actually feels on the street.”

“Our job ultimately is improving the quality of life,” says Alexandros Washburn, the department’s chief urban designer. “We can meet technical challenges but if it’s not better tomorrow from the perspective of the citizen or pedestrian, then why are we doing it?” His team of five full-time staff can swell to around 15 when urban designers from São Paulo, Singapore or Shenzhen visit. Working on around 30 projects at any time, the urban design division follows Burden’s lead and walks through areas of the city before sitting down to sketch ideas together. “We do everything from the pedestrian perspective,” says Jeffrey Shumaker, the division’s deputy director. “You don’t often see a lot of pedestrian perspective views in urban planning because everything was done from the air but that’s not how people living in the city see their city. We want to set the character and framework for how we think a neighbourhood could be and be able to involve the community with that.”

For Burden, the toughest challenge is preserving these neighbourhood communities while accommodating the city’s growth. The department’s population division predicts that by 2030, New York City will have 9.1 million residents – around 1 million more than the city today. “The challenge is how can we grow but not change? We are a city of neighbourhoods, there are around 200 of them and each is unique. We have to identify how and where we are going to grow while keeping all that is unique.”

Attention to detail has been a key part of this. Over the past decade, the department’s 250 or so employees have been measuring and drawing neighbourhoods as well as, importantly, working with communities to identify where there is room for growth. A key focus has been transport-oriented development – capitalising on New York’s widespread public transport network to allow for new building around the city’s many rail and bus routes. The approach not only rejuvenates these communities but is also an important part of keeping the city sustainable.

“It can be hard to recognise that New York is sustainable but the city is actually very green,” says Howard Slatkin, director of sustainability at the department. “We’re green in a very important sense of the word. Our carbon footprint per capita is less than a third of the national rate because we walk and we use public transportation. Developing a dense city built around transport is probably the most important thing that we can do to reduce our contribution to global greenhouse emissions.” After rezoning more than 100 neighbourhoods, 87 per cent of new housing developments are now within a 10-minute walk of public transport. In 2000, only 70 per cent were. And to make sure that new design doesn’t simply push old residents out, the department stipulated that 20 per cent of new developments must be set aside for affordable housing, resulting in nearly 2,000 new units over the past seven years.

For both New York’s residents and visitors, some of the most apparent improvements in the city’s quality of life have happened on the waterfront. Since 2002, the department has overseen the redevelopment of over 280 hectares of largely vacant waterside land to enable residential, commercial and open recreational space to thrive alongside the city’s 836km of waterfront. “We have more waterfront here than Chicago, Portland, Seattle and San Francisco combined,” says Michael Marrella, an avid fisherman and the city’s Waterfront and Open Space Planning director. He oversees Vision 2020, an ambitious plan that began in 2009 to identify and rejuvenate what was once one of the most active ports in the US.

From the thousands of joggers, tourists and cyclists using the Hudson River Park Greenway each week for getting to work or for the simple recreation of Queens’ residents who like to dip toes in the water at Newtown Creek Park, New York has been transformed by the development of its waterfront. This is all part of Burden’s plan, she believes that water should be an everyday part of New Yorkers’ lives, “Just being able to access it makes you feel differently about the city,” she says.

When talking about public space, Burden can’t help but get stuck in to the details again. She discusses the importance of railing heights at the water’s edge that allow a pleasant view. It’s easy to imagine her pulling out the tape measure. For her, leading one of the most ambitious and highly scrutinised planning departments in the world is all about details. “New York has to compete on a global scale. We have to think of where it has to be several decades from now. It needs to be a city that’s more tolerant, more diverse, more fun and more sustainable. We start by looking at these grand objectives and then execute them at a micro-scale.”

Zoning explained 

The best tool in the Department of City Planning’s box is zoning – the control of space. As planning permission specifies the size and use of buildings throughout the city, zoning can range from deciding if a new building will have five or 50 storeys, to allowing cafés that offer outdoor seating and encouraging grocery stores to stock fresh fruit. Zoning laws shape how the city looks and feels. Last year, to make life easier for residents, Burden’s office published The Zoning Handbook, which breaks down the topic’s complicated regulations.

Space exploration 

The High Line
One of the best examples of Burden’s goal to “create great open space”. It’s also been a catalyst for the Manhattan area, with 50 million visitors so far, triggering $2bn (€1.5bn) of investment.

Pier 15
Situated on the East River Esplanade in Lower Manhattan, the precisely positioned elevation of the upper deck is a perfect viewing platform for the city.

Greenpoint and Williamsburg waterfront
Fenced-off, derelict land is now becoming accessible to the public through zoning laws that allows waterfront residential building only if developers also build new public parks.

Green initiative

Higher learning
Rooftop greenhouses are now in place in schools across the city, providing education and healthy produce, thanks to zoning relief that allowed their construction.

Fresh ideas
After identifying the city’s areas where there was little fresh food available and a high number of diet-related diseases, the department developed financial and zoning incentives for fresh groceries.

Winds of change
Soon we may see wind turbines in New York City’s skyline, as proposals are being discussed that would allow for structurally suitable and correctly located buildings to house clean energy-generating wind farms on their roofs.

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