For a profession that has such a direct impact on our daily lives, to hear an urban planner speak about our cities sometimes requires having a glossary at hand.
What influence will an enhanced transit system have on the proximity compactness of a city? Is your city fractal? Too many abutters in your neighbourhood? Should you care?
Of course, the majority of the language used is relatively accessible – brownfield or greenbelts, infrastructural bottlenecks, transit nodes. But for such an important project as designing or redesigning a city, things should be kept quite democratic.
At a recent policy conference in London, architects, planners, politicians and advocates sat shoulder-to-shoulder in the audience and on panels discussing how the city could be an even greater one. But, of the many presentations on London’s housing agenda, the success of the Olympic Park, or growing quality of life in the city, there were only a few standouts.
And, coincidentally, the most compelling presentation was one that dedicatedly ditches overly technical terminology and esoteric planner-speak – despite its audience of insiders. It came from Amanda Burden, director of the New York City Department of City Planning and chair of the City Planning Commission.
Over the past decade working alongside Mayor Bloomberg and colleagues such as transport commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, she’s helped transform her city. People walk more, the High Line project has set a world standard for creative green space and all over the city you can find a place to sit and relax – whether a sidewalk café or the middle of Times Square.
A lot of hard work, yes. But some credit for the success of New York today is surely due to Burden’s ability to make her plans for the city seem so fantastically human.
Her language is that of an average city resident: you’d never hear her talk about increasing density around a transit node. It’s all about how many minutes it takes you to walk to a subway station (it should be less than 10).
Mayors and city planners around the world should not only study what Amanda Burden does but how she speaks about it. Such public projects as hers should have public support. And Burden knows that getting her plans put into action means getting them put into law – and convincing lawmakers means communicating with the electorate to get them on side.
In New York, she would tell you quality of life isn’t a set of metrics – it’s simply how you feel on the street. And when she talks in those terms it’s hard not to feel like she’s there to look after you.
The result is Burden has been able to rezone 40 per cent of New York City to her standards through community support and will leave a legacy that will be tough to undo.
And the lesson for London’s planners: even the least technical jargon may be too technical.