Amanda Burden might be the most influential figure in New York City government, after Mayor Michael Bloomberg. As New York City Planning Commissioner for the past decade, she has spearheaded efforts to re-zone a huge swath of New York and reclaim its waterfront. While Burden focuses on those grand ambitions, she is also dedicated to details that make “streetscapes” work. Her supporters call her a visionary who will leave behind a much-improved city. But critics worry she’s creating gentrified neighborhoods that no longer welcome the working class. Diane talks with Amanda Burden about her role as the city’s planning commissioner and lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy.


  • Amanda Burden Director of New York City Department of Planning.

Photo Gallery: Planning New York City’s Streetscape###

Images courtesy of the New York City Department of Planning. All rights reserved.


  • 11:06:55

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. People who don't know Amanda Burden and see her photo might think she's simply a quietly refined socialite. They'd be mistaken. As one of New York City's major power brokers, Burden spends her days reviewing zoning and development plans, but boss, Mayor Michael Bloomberg says her great talent is been seen at neighborhood meetings.

  • 11:07:25

    MS. DIANE REHMA knack for finessing tough audiences, New York City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden joins me from NPR's New York studio to talk about her work and the challenges facing the city after Hurricane Sandy. I invite you to be part of the program. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And good morning to you, Commissioner Burden.

  • 11:08:02

    MS. AMANDA BURDENGood morning, Diane. I can't tell you how delighted I am to be with you this morning.

  • 11:08:05

    REHMThank you so much. Give us an update on the damage to the areas of New York City that were hit so badly by Hurricane Sandy.

  • 11:08:19

    BURDENWell, there was indeed significant damage to our low-lying coastal communities, and we have a number of them as you know, because we're very much a waterfront city. The most important objective right now is to get the city up and running, and to get people to shelter if they don't have it right now. We are a very strong and resilient city. New Yorkers are famous for their resilience.

  • 11:08:50

    BURDENBut our challenge now is to look at those areas that were damaged, evaluate and analyze very, very closely what happened to those buildings, which buildings did better than other buildings, and to very, very thoughtfully incorporate into our long-term planning how we can more a more resilient city, where we need to flood proof more aggressively, and how we rebuild for the future. It's one of our largest challenges.

  • 11:09:21

    REHMOf course, we heard this morning that there are areas of New York where houses are simply going to have to be bulldozed. How are you involved with that?

  • 11:09:38

    BURDENNot this -- my agency, the planning agency, is not involved in the tearing down of the houses that propose danger to people around them. It's being done very, very carefully. What we are doing and our expertise is in neighborhoods, but also in building form. So we are not involved in the demolition of these few houses.

  • 11:10:09

    REHMThere has been some criticism that the city has not done enough to help the residents of the outlying areas, for example, Rockaway.

  • 11:10:25

    BURDENOh, there are -- I've been out in the Rockaways myself. The number of crews that are out there, both helping restore power, helping get rid of debris as people empty their cellars and dry proof them, this is the Sanitation Agency, the housing -- Public Housing Authority, the Buildings Department, the Department of Environmental Protection. A massive number of agencies and personnel who pulled people from all over the country, and including, I believe, the National Guard.

  • 11:11:02

    BURDENIt's a tremendous effort, tremendous amount of pain that people are going through right now, but I cannot tell you the numbers the mayor states on a daily basis of both people and efforts that are being brought to bear on this.

  • 11:11:19

    REHMGive me an idea of the role of the City Planning Department in determining just how the city looks and works.

  • 11:11:33

    BURDENWell, what we are responsible for at City Planning is shaping its neighborhoods, its business districts, its industrial lands and its waterfront. Our agenda over the past 11 years has been to shape a new blueprint for the city and why a new blueprint? Well, two reasons. One is zoning hasn't been looked at in the city for 50 years.

  • 11:12:02

    BURDENAnd at the time Mayor Bloomberg was elected, 2002, the Planning Department, my agency had just done a study of the demographics of the city projecting it to grow by one million people, from eight to nine million people. So our challenge was not only how we're going to grow, but especially where we are going to grow because we welcome immigrants here. That's our life blood.

  • 11:12:30

    BURDENSo we looked city wide, and we said, we've got one of the greatest assets which is our incredible mass transit subway infrastructure, and we said this is where we can grow in a sustainable way, a pattern over time, is to channel all our new development around places where there are subways and bus access. And then understand at the same that we're a city of 200 different neighborhoods.

  • 11:12:59

    BURDENEach neighborhood is completely different. So the idea was understand the DNA of each of these neighborhoods and see if we could grow to grow but not change what makes each of these neighborhoods so unique.

  • 11:13:14

    REHMGive me an example of two extraordinarily different neighborhoods and how you see each of them growing in their own way.

  • 11:13:28

    BURDENThat's such a good question. Let's take two for instance in Brooklyn. Downtown Brooklyn has one of the most extensive transit networks in the entire city. It has commuter rail, it has local subways. More than 13 or 15 different lines come together at a hub. This was a place, downtown Brooklyn, that could accommodate significant growth because not much had been built. It was partially businesses, almost no residential. An opportunity for new housing for new New Yorkers.

  • 11:14:02

    BURDENAnd at the same time we wanted to preserve the character of the low-scale neighborhoods around it, Brooklyn Heights, Boerum Hill, Fort Greene. That neighborhood could take significant height and density, however, we wanted to not just zone it, but draw it. We always draw what we think it should look like before we propose a zoning, but let me compare that with another neighborhood.

  • 11:14:34

    BURDENBedford Stuyvesant, quite a famous neighborhood for its beautiful brownstones. It has one subway line running through it on Fulton Street. That neighborhood could grow, it could provide for affordable housing, and I'll describe how we do that in a minute along one corridor, along Fulton Street, but at the same time to preserve, to freeze the level of the brownstones. Because remember, no zoning existed -- appropriate zoning for years and years.

  • 11:15:05

    BURDENSo the plan for these two neighborhoods was different. Along Fulton height, a height of 100 feet or ten stories, but in fact, we only let them build to eight stories, unless they build affordable housing that's for low income New Yorkers. And at the same time to cap the heights around the brownstones so that they -- this beautiful, beautiful brownstone blocks could not be intruded upon. In downtown Brooklyn we went up to 25, 30 stories, but transitioning down we do it very, very carefully, block by block, lot by lot.

  • 11:15:40

    BURDENSo when they reach the lower scale neighborhoods, it looks like it all fits in. So each of these is finely tuned to the real character of each of these places.

  • 11:15:51

    REHMAmanda Burden. She is New York City planning commissioner, director of the Department of City Planning. If you'd like to join us, call us 800-433-8850, send us your email to, follow us on Facebook or Twitter. How did you come to this particular position?

  • 11:16:26

    BURDENWell, this is a wonderful story for me. I always knew that I would be involved in public service since I was a little girl, and early on in my career, I taught public school as a volunteer teacher. My husband worked for Senator Robert Kennedy, and public service began a real passion. But it was the moment when my stepfather, William S. Paley, built a small, small park in the city called Paley Park, and I saw how that could transform a whole area and bring incredible pleasure.

  • 11:17:02

    BURDENThis small park with just a canopy of trees and wonderful, moveable chairs. And I decided then that I wanted to dedicate my life to creating great public spaces in the city, and I began to pursue then city planning in depth. And I got my masters degree in city planning, and one of the first projects that I worked on was a landfill in lower Manhattan called Battery Park City.

  • 11:17:29

    BURDENAnd just before that time, I met my most important mentor. His name was Holly White, William H. White, and he wrote "The Organization Man," and he was an urbanologist who specialized in public spaces. And he said to me, you can measure the health of the city by the vibrancy of its streets and public spaces, and that became my passion.

  • 11:17:55

    REHMIsn't that wonderful to have that kind of passion about what you're doing?

  • 11:18:03

    BURDENIt is. And having the public spaces to study, it makes all the difference in the world because that's what makes people fall in love with the city. The public spaces, the parks, the streets, just finding places that they can enjoy, have that respite, whether it's on the waterfront, whether it's in Bryant Park, or whether it's in a small place in Paley Park, whether it's on a sidewalk café. All of those things make a city wonderful.

  • 11:18:33

    REHMAmanda Burden, New York City planning commission, director of the Department of City Planning. When we come back we'll talk more and take your calls.

  • 11:20:05

    REHMAnd if you just joined us, Amanda Burden is my guest. She is New York City planning commissioner, director of the Department of City Planning. Just before the break we were talking, Commissioner, about the influence of William Holly White on your career. I gather you learned from him that projects and zoning changes would be best approached if they were drawn in a three-dimensional scale from the perspective of a pedestrian navigating the city, their line of sight. Say more about that.

  • 11:21:02

    BURDENYes. Well, you know, as you've heard, we have very, very broad, ambitious plans for shaping the whole city, but really how we judge a project is how it feels at the street. That's what people really care about. How does it feel walking along that street? Are there many stores along an individual block? Are there shade trees in a park? Are there places to sit that are comfortable?

  • 11:21:29

    BURDENWhen you sit at the water's edge, can you see over the railing? Or does the railing block your view? Do you feel that there is a place for you for sun and shade, a table to hold your book? Each of these things is very important and details make all the difference.

  • 11:21:47

    REHMAnd what about the buildings and size thereof?

  • 11:21:53

    BURDENWell, it's very important to have a composition of buildings and look how buildings meet the sky. But most important is, at the street, no blank walls, lots of variety. And a building can have -- could have architecture and we try to raise the bar for good architecture, but in the end it's those first two stories, what we call people scale that makes the difference. And that's what ends up making great places that people want to be.

  • 11:22:25

    REHMAnd we have a tweet from someone who lives on Fulton in Bedford-Stuyvesant who's worried about a 10-story building next to her three-story building and the tweeter asks, don't you think this is overcrowding?

  • 11:22:53

    BURDENWell, we try to really look at the context of every single neighborhood. And, yes, on Fulton Street, the new buildings are allowed to go up to 10 stories if they have 20 percent affordable housing. But one has to decide where the city is going to grow. Fulton Street has a subway. As it transitions to the north and south, it matches the scale of the existing buildings. And I don't know if the tweeter is on Fulton Street, but probably her house is right or his house is a little bit back.

  • 11:23:31

    BURDENSo we try to always, with these buildings, taller buildings, transition down so that we really look on a lot by lot basis to make sure not one building is overwhelming any other.

  • 11:23:42

    REHMAnd you're approaching us from a three-dimensional perspective.

  • 11:23:49

    BURDENAlways. And that's what's so important not only for us to understand what we're doing, but as we present this to communities, because all of these zoning plans and now we've completed 117 different plans, 11,000 blocks, almost 40 percent of the city. But none of these can happen without community consensus and each of these plans being approved by the city council member representing communities. And that's where I spend most of my time is showing these plans, these three-dimensional plans to communities and building consensus with them.

  • 11:24:30

    REHMCommissioner Burden, isn't it true, however, that you can have some smart developers getting around zoning laws?

  • 11:24:43

    BURDENAh, there's no way to get around zoning laws and it's been -- there have been many test cases, not very many, but a few where they've been forced to take down whatever floors are noncompliant with zoning.

  • 11:24:56

    REHMAnd then there came the New York Times writing in a profile of you, quote, "Then how is it possible that Donald Trump has permission to build another gigantic monument to his ego?"

  • 11:25:19

    BURDENWell, I'm not quite sure which particular building that is. But Donald Trump has only proposed buildings where the zoning already exists in place. I actually have not had a Trump project come through my Planning Commission yet.

  • 11:25:35

    REHMI see. I see. Well, this was referring to his latest skyscraper which apparently is on the west side of SoHo.

  • 11:25:49

    BURDENSo this is a project which was built what they call as-of-right is an area where the zoning has been in place in a long time. And it is about to be changed. So that's one area where the city, where the zoning has not been changed, but within the next six or nine months, it's already in public review, there will be new height limits in exactly that area.

  • 11:26:18

    REHMI see. I see. But, you know, I would think you are constantly facing the tension between growth and the desire to maintain the certain character of a neighborhood. How do you manage that?

  • 11:26:41

    BURDENIt's about understanding everything about each neighborhood. It means I walk and I walk and I walk and my staff walks and walks. And no pen is put to paper to develop a plan unless staff and I know intimately and have talked with communities about what this neighborhood's needs and opportunities are. Because if I don't have the trust of the community, are plans are going nowhere and they know in a nanosecond whether you understand their neighborhood, whether you get it. And you only get it by being there over and over and over again. And -- yes?

  • 11:27:25

    REHMExcuse me, how often do you meet with neighborhood groups?

  • 11:27:32

    BURDENLet me just tell you, on 125th Street, that was an area where there's enormous potential with incredible history of African-American culture and entertainment, but it stayed frozen in time because the zoning was fixed two or three stories. I myself chaired 40 meetings about that re-zoning. It took five years, my staff chaired over 200 meetings, and that was to build consensus again on a block by block basis.

  • 11:28:10

    BURDEN125th Street has an incredible subway system, can accommodate growth but only in the right way. And meeting with the communities we came up with an innovation and that's what often happens that there would be a zonus, zoning bonus, for arts and entertainment-related uses. And that began to sway all of the community and their elected officials. And that was a very important component of listening.

  • 11:28:39

    BURDENAnd that's what we have to do, listening and show communities that you've heard what they said and incorporated their wishes into your plans.

  • 11:28:47

    REHMAnd how were you able to apportion the amount that went other activities like entertainment?

  • 11:28:59

    BURDENIt was a back and forth with property owners and community, so was any building over certain size would get that bonus. And one presents one proposal, it's fine tuned and tailored until it works, but always balancing citywide objectives with neighborhood needs. It's a back and forth that goes on for quite a long time.

  • 11:29:24

    REHMAll right. We have a great many callers. I'm going to…

  • 11:29:28


  • 11:29:28 the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to New York City and to Tony. Good morning, sir.

  • 11:29:41

    TONYGood morning, ma'am. It's an honor to participate, third time actually. Miss Burden, you are mentioning a lot the passenger rail and subway systems. I live on Staten Island and we've been missing a North Shore Rail System for about 50 years. It would really help with our growth. But to speak specifically about community planning, well, South Beach was a historical flood point and it was known as Bungalow Town about 50 years ago.

  • 11:30:09

    TONYAnd now there's a big thriving community. The developers seem to be on Staten Island, the ones that's really generating and developing the planning of the neighborhoods. So if they build it, they will come. And it's cause the lost of character. We had a lot of Victorian homes, beautiful homes, of all types. In fact, an area not too far from my house is used as a set for Boardwalk Empire.

  • 11:30:33

    TONYBut there seems to be very little planning that has been going on. And Staten Island, of course, we feel that we are the forgotten borough. And in fact, there's a lot of planning, for example, 625-foot ferris wheel with this latest storm, I'm not sure if that's a great idea to put a 625-foot ferris wheel in Staten Island.

  • 11:30:51

    REHMAll right, sir, thanks for calling.

  • 11:30:54

    BURDENTony, thank you so much for calling. I probably spend more time in Staten Island than any other borough because indeed the call of overdevelopment began from the very moment Mike Bloomberg was elected mayor. And I've worked incredibly closely with the Borough President Jamie Molinaro. And I think you know that there's a massive borough president rezoning of 60,000 lots in Staten Island and including are lower density growth management areas that really required that every building have its own front yard.

  • 11:31:31

    BURDENHonesty, Tony, you're right, the zoning when we came into office was really just focused on development. And we've tried to really cap development, make sure that each development is thought about. But -- and because you only have your single SIRT Rail and you're right that the North Shore Rail and the activation of that right of way would be very helpful in getting around Staten Island and so we've been trying to cap growth in Staten Island everywhere, really, because you cannot handle more growth.

  • 11:32:09

    BURDENNow, the ferris wheel that you talked about, that will go through -- that's being proposed by the Economic Development Corporation. That will go through a long public -- long seven-month public process when it begins that public process. But you can be sure it will take a lot of comment, a lot of discrimination in terms of being very careful about when can be built there, it's right on the water. And so we will see, we will see. And I will be looking at it the same way you're looking at it.

  • 11:32:40

    REHMAnd especially with the storm that has just come through, does putting up that kind of ferris wheel make sense?

  • 11:32:52

    BURDENThat will be examined. And Staten Island got hit as hard as any borough of the city, I saw what happened to it myself. We have to look very, very carefully at what can be done on the shores of Staten Island and we will spend this time analyzing, listening and examining and seeing what's best for the rebuilding of Staten Island.

  • 11:33:16

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." To Toledo, OH, good morning, David.

  • 11:33:25

    DAVIDGood morning, Diane, and thank you for all you do.

  • 11:33:27

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:33:29

    DAVIDThere are very few organized and national advocates for good planning and they're severely underfunded compared to development community who has a team of lawyers, a team of planners that they've hired to contradict what is considered throughout the industry, I think, good planning standards. So there's a good deal of common belief among planners in what good planning is. Thank you.

  • 11:34:05

    BURDENLet me -- I'm delighted to respond to that. Listen, I am very fortunate because I work for an incredible mayor, Mike Bloomberg. And from the very start of his administration, he put a premium on planning. And he hired as a deputy mayor, incredible man, Dan Doctoroff, who pulled together all of the agencies that are involved in planning and development so that we would have as much input and as much force citywide in shaping a blueprint that would make a better city.

  • 11:34:42

    BURDENAnd we -- our challenge and our conviction was that we would set the agenda for being able to allowing developers to build at the right height, but only in the right place to an elevated standard where we really raised the bar for both public and private development. But it took leadership from the top, from Mayor Mike Bloomberg and from Dan Doctoroff and from his agencies to set that standards.

  • 11:35:13

    BURDENDevelopers want to build and they will build as aggressively as they can. But it's the city's responsibility to set those standards in terms of both building form and high quality of development and high quality public spaces. And that's where I've also focused a lot of my energies.

  • 11:35:31

    REHMAnd what happens when Mayor Bloomberg and his deputy mayor go out of office? What happens to the work you were doing? What happens to you and your position?

  • 11:35:47

    BURDENWell, zoning is very hard to change. Each one of our zonings, and I described one of them, take five years. One of them -- each of them take years and years. And as I said, they have to be built through community consensus. I'm not sure other administrations would want to expend that time, spend that time listening, doing the homework to get the right building in the right place. So getting the zoning undone is very hard and we've really set in place a new blueprint for land use throughout the city that I don't believe will get undone.

  • 11:36:26

    REHMSo you're confident that the kinds of rules, the kinds of zoning that you put in place is going to hold, say, for 10, 20 even 50 years?

  • 11:36:42

    BURDENI would say for 50 years. But what I'm not sure about if the same premium on high quality design, a project like the High Line. With the High Line have gotten done under another mayor, would it focus on such incredible controls of allowing light and air to get on the High Line, that the design details are premium, that the plans are extraordinary and exuberant, that you have one of the most unique gardens, park in the sky, with this kind of focus on creating great architecture and great public spaces endure beyond this administration.

  • 11:37:28

    REHMAmanda Burden, she is New York City planning commissioner, director of the Department of City Planning. More of your calls, your email when we come back.

  • 11:40:04

    REHMAnd welcome back. Amanda Burden is on the line with me from New York. She is the New York City Planning Commissioner, Director of the Department of City Planning. We are taking your phone calls, your email. And here's an email from Philip who's in Houston, Texas. He says, "Houston has literally no city zoning whatsoever. It's left to private ventures and small scale projects which are too piecemealed together and infrastructure of public space. Please speak to the possibilities of and Syria's obstacles to city planning without the very useful tool of zoning."

  • 11:41:06

    BURDENWell, Philip, I couldn't agree with you more. Not having zoning creates, I think, a very unpredictable city. It also doesn't set the priorities for the public realm. That means sidewalks, interconnectivity where you can get around by means other than car, which isn't very Texan but it's possible. I've seen it actually -- I've seen it -- seeing -- I'm seeing it happen in Dallas right now, whether as a new focus on public space and they've -- building an enormous park which is over a cut in the -- a railway cut that I've forgotten what it’s called. But it’s focusing on a great public space at the center of the city.

  • 11:41:53

    BURDENAnd so there are two aspects here. One is zoning, which that's a predictability in building form in the composition of buildings. But zoning can also set a public space. And why is public space so important? Because that brings people together and it actually can define an area and catalyze good things to happen. And I've focused on this in my -- both my job and in my professional career. If you have a great public open space like Bryant Park it was a drug den years ago. Nobody would go there except to sell drugs.

  • 11:42:35

    BURDENBut when it was designed correctly so people could see into and out of it, very holly white, it catalyzed the entire area and made it a new center of activity and private investment. And that's what this new park is going to do in Dallas. So the combination of zoning for predictability and of public space makes a great city.

  • 11:42:58

    REHMBut don't you have to have civic involvement and a civic push for that kind of activity?

  • 11:43:10

    BURDENYes. And the best zoning plans and public space are done with the input and the collaboration of the public. So the public would have to push for zoning reform in Houston. The public would have to push for public open space because in the end your land use policies are reflection of what people really want and what the power structure provides. But again, people are elected to office. And if there's a tremendous push from the public for a change it can happen, I do believe.

  • 11:43:47

    REHMAll right. To a caller here in Washington, D.C. Good morning, James.

  • 11:43:54

    JAMESHi there. I wanted to ask how you--you make it so the long term visionary planning of the kind you're--you're talking about can endure past the people. And you all were talking about this before the last break a little bit--endure past the people that come up with the long term planning and survive the reign of leaders who lack that sort of vision. D.C., at least on a couple projects, was under the guidance of some very visionary people back in the Williams Administration. In particular a stretch of land along the Anacostia south of RFK Stadium.

  • 11:44:31

    JAMESLong term visionary comprehensive master plan put in place that, you know, elections happen, and admittedly the recession side tracked things too. But then next thing we know all that is out the window and we're back at piecemeal short term thinking of who can put whose pet project there instead of treating it as the 100-year opportunity that it is.

  • 11:44:54

    BURDENThat's a very good question. Let me tell you that zoning -- there's two things, zoning and particular iconic projects. Zoning, if it's done well on a large scale and if it's done on a lot by lot, block by block basis will endure overtime because it is law. It's gone through a city council and a legal approval process, especially if it's done on a very large scale. Now specific projects such as a stadium can disappear from one administration to another if it's not built.

  • 11:45:33

    BURDENThat's why even though there were objections to a three-term mayoralty, it really takes three terms to actually get things built -- get the zoning adopted, get things built and get down to that fine grain scale so that you have walkable streets, so that neighborhoods -- within one neighborhood everything is walkable so that you have a bikeable, walkable community where shopping services and jobs are all close to home. That's New York City's goal right now. And that will be put in place after these three terms are over. Hard to undo.

  • 11:46:16

    REHMJames, thanks for calling. Here's an email from Susan in Fort Wayne, Ind. She says, what advice would you give citizens who live in cities that are not neighborhood centric? We have a large transportation-centered project being pushed through a small residential historic district and are being failed by the federal historic preservation review process."

  • 11:46:54

    BURDENWell, that brings into focus a lot of different components. One is large scale projects, and I would actually have to see it and analyze and I'd walk -- you know, walk that neighborhood preservation and the small scaled fine grained approach. Sometimes large projects are very important to the city to have it grow and to provide jobs, economic development, open space and new housing. And it's really on a case-by-case basis. I have seen cities be able to thread the needle between two things. Have a large scale project but it's done so well that street trees are brought in, benches on sidewalks.

  • 11:47:47

    BURDENAnd you can actually transition from this large scale citywide push to have neighborhoods feel that they're both preserved and that the fine grain of historic texture is also preserved. But without seeing it I can't really be a good commentator.

  • 11:48:04

    REHMAnd, you know, here in Washington, D.C. when the metro system was being built the people of Georgetown, which I'm sure you know well, fought very, very hard to preserve that area of historic houses, historic landscape and succeeded. But it was civic activity that managed to, in the end, win out.

  • 11:48:43

    BURDENAll of our plans are far better because of community engagement. Communities know their own neighborhoods. They know the value of their neighborhoods and they must be heard to make better plans. I totally believe that.

  • 11:48:58

    REHMIt's also a matter of wealth, however. And the people of Georgetown have the wealth to mount that kind of fight and to hire the lawyers and to make sure that their homes and their landscape went unaffected. Now perhaps in Fort Wayne, Ind. there is not that same kind of ability to mount the argument.

  • 11:49:37

    BURDENThat could be true. What we try to do in this administration is to advocate for these less advantageous communities and make sure that their voices are heard. So it all depends on the city and its neighborhoods.

  • 11:49:54

    REHMAll right. To Cambridge, Mass. Hi there, Phyllis.

  • 11:50:00

    PHYLLISHi there, Diane. I really appreciate your call because we are currently in the midst of a very big project that is going to potentially change the nature of Central Square, one of the dominant squares in the city. And there's a huge tension between what feels like a very large scaled project and the small scale neighbor -- sense of neighborhood. And the people who live in the neighborhood are very worried about the quality of life. And they're being characterized as opponents of development.

  • 11:50:40

    PHYLLISAnd one of the arguments -- and this is what I would like Commissioner Burden to speak to -- is that the density brings in services. And people who live adjacent to this big plan are desperately fearful of an enormous increase in traffic, in parking problems, in apartments being built for young people who are servicing the technology industry and will not necessarily stay in the city and won't be committed to the long term development. And won't stay there because the apartments are small that are being projected, won't stay and be able to develop families.

  • 11:51:29

    PHYLLISAnd so we're losing our middle class and that's having a huge impact on the school system.

  • 11:51:35

    BURDENThat's such a complicated question. And again, you know, I wish I could be there. Now university expansion, institutional expansion is very important for all cities because that's our engine of opportunity. But institutional expansion, which I believe is what you're talking about, has to be carefully balanced with traffic, the number of services, really the quality of life at the human scale.

  • 11:52:04

    BURDENI think that all development has to enact an environmental impact statement in each community which talks about the traffic, which talks about the, you know, press on existing services. And those have to be answered in all development in our city, I'm sure, and Cambridge as well. But there are ways to mitigate. You know, it's a question of how large the scale is, whether the community actually has some power to shape this project so that it doesn't overly impact the community.

  • 11:52:42

    BURDENWe find that we want to make sure that people have means other than a car to get there. Make sure that there's public transport. Make sure there's bicycle parking. Make sure that there's bicycle lanes. And it's all a question of the scale and, as you say, the services. And only you know whether the scale is being overdone or whether it's right and it can be tailored down. We -- project always come in too big and then they're scaled down. This is by either private institution or private developer so that they better meet the needs of the community.

  • 11:53:19

    BURDENAnd I imagine that the community and Cambridge is very strong and articulate. And I hope you're able to get a good result with this proposed development.

  • 11:53:30

    REHMThanks for calling, Phyllis. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Commissioner Burden you work in one of the most complicated, populated cities in the entire country. You've heard this morning from folks in Massachusetts, in Fort Wayne, Ind., in Houston, Texas. Have you been asked to go to other cities to walk them in the same way you are walking New York City?

  • 11:54:09

    BURDENI actually am asked to travel and I travel a great deal, not only around the United States but around the world. And I always come back with new ideas for New York City. I've been traveling recently with our incredible transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn. We traveled to Copenhagen and learned how they can integrate safe bike lanes into a city. We traveled to Bogotá and we saw how you can have a bus rapid transit where buses move through a city quickly and speedily. We've learned how to incorporate, you know, bicycle parking into buildings. We've learned how to have a more sustainable city that can actually capture rainwater.

  • 11:54:54

    BURDENSo we travel around. They ask for our ideas, but best of all we bring ideas from around the world to make New York City a better place.

  • 11:55:04

    REHMSo are we here in the United States ahead of the curve or behind the curve in terms of some of the cities you've mentioned?

  • 11:55:18

    BURDENWell, if you take cities -- a city like Portland or example, it's way ahead of the curve.

  • 11:55:22

    REHMPortland, Ore or Portland, Maine?

  • 11:55:24

    BURDENI'm sorry, Portland, Ore., right. In Portland, Ore. it's one of the most sustainable cities in the United States. They understand how we have to capture rainwater and detain it. And otherwise you have a flooded city and this is particularly relevant right now for New York City. And we have been copying them already. They have incorporated bicycle lanes. They've incorporated what we call mixed use, you know, residential, industrial, commercial. And they really have made a city much more walkable friendly but also incorporating economic development and jobs at the same time.

  • 11:56:00

    BURDENYou have a city like Chicago which understands from great Mayor Daly how important the streets are and beautiful streets. And taking over a rail yard that was really a blight upon the city and turning it into the most wonderful public spaces in the entire country. So many things to learn from cities in this country that are quite ahead of the curve. I'll tell you the rest of the world looks to the United States for examples. We look to them for ways we can learn how to make a more livable city.

  • 11:56:29

    REHMAnd finally here's an email from Jody who says, "I'll graduate in December, 2013 with my masters in disaster management. I want to use that knowledge in designing and creating safer and sustainable communities." She wants to know quickly, "How do I go about merging these interests?" We have about ten seconds.

  • 11:57:01

    BURDENThis couldn't be more timely, urban design and planning for disasters. So we've just had in this Super Storm Sandy is perfectly attuned to what we need now. This...

  • 11:57:14

    REHMAmanda Burden, New York City Planning Commissioner, Director of the Department of City Planning. What a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you for being with us.

  • 11:57:28

    BURDENThank you so much, Diane. I love being here.

  • 11:57:31

    REHMAnd thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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