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  • When people think about cities,

  • they tend to think of certain things.

  • They think of buildings and streets

  • and skyscrapers, noisy cabs.

  • But when I think about cities,

  • I think about people.

  • Cities are fundamentally about people,

  • and where people go

  • and where people meet

  • are at the core of what makes a city work.

  • So even more important than buildings in a city

  • are the public spaces in between them.

  • And today, some of the most transformative

  • changes in cities

  • are happening in these public spaces.

  • So I believe that lively, enjoyable public spaces

  • are the key to planning a great city.

  • They are what makes it come alive.

  • But what makes a public space work?

  • What attracts people to successful public spaces,

  • and what is it about unsuccessful places

  • that keeps people away?

  • I thought, if I could answer those questions,

  • I could make a huge contribution to my city.

  • But one of the more wonky things about me

  • is that I am an animal behaviorist,

  • and I use those skills not to study animal behavior

  • but to study how people in cities

  • use city public spaces.

  • One of the first spaces that I studied

  • was this little vest pocket park called Paley Park

  • in midtown Manhattan.

  • This little space became a small phenomenon,

  • and because it had such a profound impact

  • on New Yorkers,

  • it made an enormous impression on me.

  • I studied this park very early on in my career

  • because it happened to have been built

  • by my stepfather,

  • so I knew that places like Paley Park

  • didn't happen by accident.

  • I saw firsthand that they required

  • incredible dedication

  • and enormous attention to detail.

  • But what was it about this space

  • that made it special and drew people to it?

  • Well, I would sit in the park and watch very carefully,

  • and first among other things

  • were the comfortable, movable chairs.

  • People would come in, find their own seat,

  • move it a bit, actually, and then stay a while,

  • and then interestingly,

  • people themselves attracted other people,

  • and ironically, I felt more peaceful

  • if there were other people around.

  • And it was green.

  • This little park provided what New Yorkers crave:

  • comfort and greenery.

  • But my question was,

  • why weren't there more places with greenery

  • and places to sit in the middle of the city

  • where you didn't feel alone,

  • or like a trespasser?

  • Unfortunately, that's not how cities

  • were being designed.

  • So here you see a familiar sight.

  • This is how plazas have been designed for generations.

  • They have that stylish, Spartan look

  • that we often associate with modern architecture,

  • but it's not surprising that people

  • avoid spaces like this.

  • They not only look desolate,

  • they feel downright dangerous.

  • I mean, where would you sit here?

  • What would you do here?

  • But architects love them.

  • They are plinths for their creations.

  • They might tolerate a sculpture or two,

  • but that's about it.

  • And for developers, they are ideal.

  • There's nothing to water, nothing to maintain,

  • and no undesirable people to worry about.

  • But don't you think this is a waste?

  • For me, becoming a city planner

  • meant being able to truly change the city

  • that I lived in and loved.

  • I wanted to be able to create places

  • that would give you the feeling that you got

  • in Paley Park,

  • and not allow developers to build bleak plazas like this.

  • But over the many years,

  • I have learned how hard it is

  • to create successful, meaningful,

  • enjoyable public spaces.

  • As I learned from my stepfather,

  • they certainly do not happen by accident,

  • especially in a city like New York,

  • where public space has to be fought for to begin with,

  • and then for them to be successful,

  • somebody has to think very hard

  • about every detail.

  • Now, open spaces in cities are opportunities.

  • Yes, they are opportunities for commercial investment,

  • but they are also opportunities for the common good

  • of the city,

  • and those two goals are often not aligned with one another,

  • and therein lies the conflict.

  • The first opportunity I had to fight

  • for a great public open space was in the early 1980s,

  • when I was leading a team of planners

  • at a gigantic landfill called Battery Park City

  • in lower Manhattan on the Hudson River.

  • And this sandy wasteland had lain barren

  • for 10 years,

  • and we were told, unless we found a developer

  • in six months, it would go bankrupt.

  • So we came up with a radical,

  • almost insane idea.

  • Instead of building a park

  • as a complement to future development,

  • why don't we reverse that equation

  • and build a small but very high-quality

  • public open space first,

  • and see if that made a difference.

  • So we only could afford to build a two-block section

  • of what would become a mile-long esplanade,

  • so whatever we built had to be perfect.

  • So just to make sure, I insisted

  • that we build a mock-up

  • in wood, at scale, of the railing and the sea wall.

  • And when I sat down on that test bench

  • with sand still swirling all around me,

  • the railing hit exactly at eye level,

  • blocking my view and ruining my experience

  • at the water's edge.

  • So you see, details really do make a difference.

  • But design is not just how something looks,

  • it's how your body feels on that seat in that space,

  • and I believe that successful design always depends

  • on that very individual experience.

  • In this photo, everything looks very finished,

  • but that granite edge, those lights,

  • the back on that bench,

  • the trees in planting,

  • and the many different kinds of places to sit

  • were all little battles that turned this project

  • into a place that people wanted to be.

  • Now, this proved very valuable 20 years later

  • when Michael Bloomberg asked me to be

  • his planning commissioner

  • and put me in charge of shaping

  • the entire city of New York.

  • And he said to me on that very day,

  • he said that New York was projected

  • to grow from eight to nine million people.

  • And he asked me,

  • "So where are you going to put

  • one million additional New Yorkers?"

  • Well, I didn't have any idea.

  • Now, you know that New York does

  • place a high value on attracting immigrants,

  • so we were excited about the prospect of growth,

  • but honestly, where were we going to grow

  • in a city that was already built out to its edges

  • and surrounded by water?

  • How were we going to find housing

  • for that many new New Yorkers?

  • And if we couldn't spread out,

  • which was probably a good thing,

  • where could new housing go?

  • And what about cars?

  • Our city couldn't possibly handle any more cars.

  • So what were we going to do?

  • If we couldn't spread out, we had to go up.

  • And if we had to go up,

  • we had to go up in places

  • where you wouldn't need to own a car.

  • So that meant using one of our greatest assets:

  • our transit system.

  • But we had never before thought

  • of how we could make the most of it.

  • So here was the answer to our puzzle.

  • If we were to channel and redirect

  • all new development around transit,

  • we could actually handle that population increase,

  • we thought.

  • And so here was the plan,

  • what we really needed to do:

  • We needed to redo our zoning --

  • and zoning is the city planner's regulatory tool --

  • and basically reshape the entire city,

  • targeting where new development could go

  • and prohibiting any development at all

  • in our car-oriented,

  • suburban-style neighborhoods.

  • Well, this was an unbelievably ambitious idea,

  • ambitious because communities

  • had to approve those plans.

  • So how was I going to get this done?

  • By listening. So I began listening,

  • in fact, thousands of hours of listening

  • just to establish trust.

  • You know, communities can tell

  • whether or not you understand their neighborhoods.

  • It's not something you can just fake.

  • And so I began walking.

  • I can't tell you how many blocks I walked,

  • in sweltering summers, in freezing winters,

  • year after year,

  • just so I could get to understand

  • the DNA of each neighborhood

  • and know what each street felt like.

  • I became an incredibly geeky zoning expert,

  • finding ways that zoning could address

  • communities' concerns.

  • So little by little, neighborhood by neighborhood,

  • block by block,

  • we began to set height limits

  • so that all new development

  • would be predictable and near transit.

  • Over the course of 12 years,

  • we were able to rezone

  • 124 neighborhoods,

  • 40 percent of the city,

  • 12,500 blocks, so that now,

  • 90 percent of all new development of New York

  • is within a 10-minute walk of a subway.

  • In other words, nobody in those new buildings

  • needs to own a car.

  • Well, those rezonings were exhausting

  • and enervating and important,

  • but rezoning was never my mission.

  • You can't see zoning and you can't feel zoning.

  • My mission was always to create

  • great public spaces.

  • So in the areas where we zoned for significant development,

  • I was determined to create places

  • that would make a difference in people's lives.

  • Here you see what was

  • two miles of abandoned, degraded waterfront

  • in the neighborhoods of Greenpoint

  • and Williamsburg in Brooklyn,

  • impossible to get to and impossible to use.

  • Now the zoning here was massive,

  • so I felt an obligation to create

  • magnificent parks on these waterfronts,

  • and I spent an incredible amount of time

  • on every square inch of these plans.

  • I wanted to make sure that there were

  • tree-lined paths from the upland to the water,

  • that there were trees and plantings everywhere,

  • and, of course, lots and lots of places to sit.

  • Honestly, I had no idea how it would turn out.

  • I had to have faith.

  • But I put everything that I had studied and learned

  • into those plans.

  • And then it opened,

  • and I have to tell you, it was incredible.