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Out of the Blue

Suzanne Walters Gray MFA '04

After Amanda Burden ’76 graduated from college, she wanted to move to Africa. She had studied animal behavior at Sarah Lawrence, spending hours observing primates and birds at the Bronx Zoo and writing conference papers detailing their habits. She hoped to work in the wild with a famous ethologist like Jane Goodall, but she had two young children. “It wasn’t going to happen,” she remembers. Like newly minted graduates everywhere, Burden had to reckon her dreams against reality, and the reality was that her life was in New York City.

What kind of life that would be remained unclear, though, until one day when she ran into a friend on the street. The friend was working for William H. Whyte, a sociologist who had revolutionized city planning—a field traditionally dominated by utopian theorists—by conducting scientific research on how people used public spaces. And, Burden’s friend reported, Whyte was hiring.

If Burden could collect data about the mating behavior of mandrills, she could surely collect data on how many people sat on a park bench in a day. She went to work for Whyte, parking herself in a plaza with a clipboard and stopwatch, tracking where people gathered and how the changing patterns of sun and shade affected their movement. She enjoyed the work. The city streets were no savanna, but they were the natural habitat of an important species. She became fascinated by the way features of the built environment—the rise of a stair, the width of a sidewalk, the arrangement of chairs in an atrium—could make the difference between a lively public space and a desolate one.

Soon enough, she wasn’t just observing city spaces; she was helping to shape them. Burden went back to school and earned a master’s degree in urban planning from Columbia University, writing a thesis on solid waste management. William H. Whyte became her mentor, sharing the conviction that lively streets are the sign of a healthy city. In the 1980s, Burden scored the urban planner’s dream job when she was tapped to oversee the master plan for Battery Park City, which was developed from scratch on the infill from the World Trade Center. She and Whyte collaborated on the much-lauded esplanade.

In 2002, Mayor Bloomberg appointed Burden the city planning commissioner. Her responsibilities range from the minute to the grandiose, from deciding whether the entry of a proposed low-income apartment building will feel safe and welcoming to developing a plan to accommodate a million new city dwellers over the course of the next 20 years. This is the territory of giants, the kind of job that will affect the life of the city long after she’s left office. But no matter how lofty the enterprise, she keeps the lessons of her early training in mind: Pay attention to details. People will tell you what they need—you just have to listen.

Amanda Burden has been thinking about the water a lot lately. New York City has more than 500 miles of shoreline, and the Department of City Planning, along with other agencies, has spent the past year developing a comprehensive waterfront plan for the next decade, hashing out a blueprint for where to put parks and ports and ferries and oyster beds. Much of the plan is derived from a host of community meetings—at least one in every borough—where people can make suggestions about how best to connect the city to the water.

In June, more than 100 people showed up for a meeting about the Blue Network, the Department of City Planning name for the waterways themselves. Canoers, kayakers, community board members, port workers, planning students, environmental activists, and residents of waterfront neighborhoods milled noisily around the auditorium of a public school in downtown Manhattan, until Burden stuck two fingers in her mouth and gave a piercing whistle to get everyone’s attention. “Water is our connective tissue. It is our sixth borough,” she said, and the crowd applauded. One of the opening slides of the presentation featured an optimistic photo illustration of a swimmer doing the butterfly in the East River.

New York’s waterfront has a storied history. The city began as a trading port, and as recently as 1950, it was the busiest harbor on the East Coast, with up to 40 piers connected directly to the warehouses and shipping centers of downtown Manhattan, and many more in Brooklyn and Staten Island. But with the rise of container shipping, which demanded not downtown access but facilities with deep water and spacious docks, the city’s ports collapsed into obsolescence. Soon the working waterfront in Manhattan had degenerated into a few forlorn rows of wooden pier supports poking out of the water. Maritime and industrial enterprises in the boroughs languished as well. Fences, shoreline highways, and pollution all conspired to keep New Yorkers away from the water’s edge.

But rotting docks don’t do anyone any good, and in 1992, the Department of City Planning published its first comprehensive waterfront plan, which established a framework for reclaiming the waterfront. As a result, the department says, about 29 miles of shoreline were opened to the public, and the quality of the water was improved. (Much of the East River and the Hudson are now rated for secondary contact, which means it’s okay to get splashed, but not to take a dunk.)

There are big differences between the beaches and parks of Rockaway and Coney Island, the wetlands in Jamaica Bay, the industrial areas of Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal, the boatyards of Sunset Park and Staten Island, and the waterfront condos on the East River. The new waterfront plan—called Vision 2020—will propose ways to enhance and balance industrial, commercial, recreational, and environmental uses of the water.

Of course, deciding whether there should be a deep-water port in Brooklyn, or how to create a ferry system that can efficiently transport thousands of commuters, or how to purify the East River so that someone could actually swim in it, or how to negotiate traffic patterns so that various watercraft don’t run into each other, is no small task. To tackle some of these questions, the Blue Network meeting split into groups. Burden slipped into a seat and watched attentively as people raised their hands to offer their suggestions, with varying degrees of coherence. Maybe you should have to get a license to drive a boat. Maybe you should be able to launch kayaks from Rockaway Beach. Maybe there should be special parking areas for people using commuter ferries, or rungs in the seawall so capsized boaters can haul themselves out.

Burden snuck out to visit the other breakout groups, then returned. The meeting ran past its appointed hour, and the city planning staffers decided to schedule another meeting to allow for further discussion. This sustained conversation with the public seems like it would grow tedious after a while, but Burden emphasizes its value. No city planner wants to be accused of ignoring the needs and desires of a community, and Burden takes special care to get to know a neighborhood before proposing any changes to it. She walks every block that’s under consideration, and insists that her commission members do the same. “You really can’t take a single step toward developing a plan without understanding the neighborhood,” she says. She’s rezoned—and walked—more than 8,600 blocks since she became commissioner. She didn’t let the aqueous nature of her current project upset her methodology: before embarking on the waterfront plan, she recruited her boat-owning son-in-law to give her a tour of every creek and inlet within the city limits.

New York’s waterfront is, or could be, an economic engine, an evacuation route, a tourist attraction, a commuter thruway, a playground, and a defense against storms and sea-level rise. Burden seems particularly moved by the idea of the waterfront as a source of respite. Though she has dedicated her career to the city, she’s still a nature lover at heart, and is especially fond of birdwatching. “Being close to the water’s edge really relieves the drumming of the city,” she says, a bit wistfully. In Lower Manhattan, the piers and slips of the city’s original port are currently being transformed into the East River Waterfront Park. It’s just blocks from Burden’s office near City Hall, and when it’s complete, she hopes to pay the occasional lunchtime visit—not to check its progress or count the people sitting on benches, but to simply listen to the lapping of the water, observe the seagulls, and relax.

Water is our connective tissue. It is our sixth borough.

Kayakers Boat Waterfront

Four of the five boroughs are islands, but the shoreline is mostly bulkhead, cut off from the city by highways. Access to the water is an important part of Burden’s plan.

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City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden ’76 is transforming New York City’s waterfront. Photo courtesy of Department of City Planning