Interview: David Burney

Sep 30, 2013
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Designer

The Festival of Ideas 2013 is a free biannual festival held at the University of Melbourne and at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. Burney will be speaking on the topic of ‘liveable cities’ on 2 October in Melbourne. 

Burney heralds from Liverpool, UK and moved to New York City in 1982 where he was a practising architect and then director of design at the NYC Housing Authority before becoming commissioner of DDC in 2004. He launched Mayor Michael R Bloomberg’s Design and Construction Excellence Initiative (2006) with the goal of raising the quality of design and construction of public works throughout New York City.

Michael Holt: What are the key projects in New York at present and would such projects be easily transferable to other locales?

David Burney: My impression of New York is that there is so much attention paid to these sorts of mega projects, like the World Trade Centre rebuilding or Hudson Yards on the West Side. Personally, the real transformation – comprehensive across the city – has been the attention on public space through Janette Sadik-Khan at Department of Transport (DOT). When I first came to New York City [in 1982] it was all about traffic management, making the cars go faster; Janette’s completely reversed that. As [Danish architect] Jan Gehl would claim, it’s the idea of ‘complete streets’: the bike program, bike lanes, pedestrian plazas. These have been really transformative, not just in the downtown business district, but all across the city. The other major transformation is the waterfront. Public access to the waterfront, as the old industrial uses are dying out, has been similarly transformative. The Economic Development Corporation (EDC) has done most of that work, but we talk about it as the ‘sixth borough’. It’s a huge, unrealised asset.

MH: Do you think it’s necessary to demolish existing infrastructure to allow for greater public connections to the waterfront?

DB: An interesting case study is San Francisco, where they had the Presidio Parkway that separated the city from the water. They were ‘lucky’ enough to have an earthquake [in 1989] and the whole thing collapsed. They had talked about taking it down, but everybody complained, ‘No, you can’t take it down, the traffic will be awful’. But when it collapsed, the traffic just found some other place to go, so they simply decided against a rebuild. Gehl talks of ‘traffic evaporation’ – it’s the opposite of ‘build it and they will come’. He points out that if you build a highway, more cars come, but if you take the highways down, you get ‘traffic evaporation’: they just find some other place to find their way. 

MH: In the contemporary metropolis, such as New York, public place-making is a resurgent topic in policy debate. Do you see a need for a pedagogical approach too? How would your role at the DDC impact upon the teaching of place-making?

DB: I teach a planning studio and I’m actually starting a new masters’ course too, at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn. It’s called Urban Place Making and Management. It’s about community-building, creating successful public spaces, maintaining them, programming them and so on. We think it’s almost a new sort of discipline in a way. It’s not only aimed specifically at graduate architects and planners, it doesn’t really matter what your background is so long as you have an interest in creating successful public places. My department manages many of the plazas for DOT and so we want the students to start with the community and try to find stakeholders, then start physical design to figure out how you’re going to program them, how they’ll be maintained over time, how you’re going to make them economically successful. Most of them are just architects, so the idea is that you could teach a curriculum that would encompass all the skills involved in public place-making so that when they graduate they really know how to make it work. It’s a very practical course.

Obviously there’s a theoretical basis and history to place-making as well, there’s all the pedagogical parts and other disciplines that feed into it, whether it’s architecture, landscape architecture or economics, but I think with place-making you have to step back a little bit. It’s not necessarily about those disciplines; it’s about a process. It’s about involving the community in that process and making sure that all the inputs have come at the right time and the right place, so it’s more of a sort of management thing rather than a pure discipline.

MH: Melbourne consistently has the tag of ‘the most liveable city in the world’; what makes a liveable city?

DB: When I’m teaching I talk about ‘hard infrastructure’ and ‘soft infrastructure’, so to be a liveable city you’ve got to have the big three hard infrastructures: power, water and waste disposal. Not to mention adequate transportation, decent architecture and suitable housing. If you look at Christchurch or Haiti, that’s the big problem. They have to get that infrastructure down and until you do that you don’t even have a place to start. Cities like New York, Sydney or Melbourne already have fairly robust hard infrastructures and so you have to talk about soft infrastructure.

In New York, the number one area is the crime rate. If you don’t keep the crime rate down people just leave, so you’ve got to have a secure, safe place. It’s interesting, after the attack on the World Trade Centre everybody said, ‘Well that’s it, New York’s done for,’ because they don’t have to be on Wall Street anymore; they can be in Bangalore or wherever. But then, in 2006, Goldman Sachs contemplated relocating to New Jersey, but then built this US$650 million headquarters on West Street, right opposite the World Trade Centre site. They realised all the 20-somethings they have to recruit and retain want to be in New York; they don’t want to be in Bangalore or New Jersey. They want to be there for the restaurants, the parks, the movies and the cultural institutions and so on. It’s the soft infrastructures that are needed.

[Mayor] Bloomberg is always saying, “Every dollar we invest in a cultural institution we get US$8 back in economic activity, because these are the things that attract people to the city and what make the city liveable.” Before all this, though, you’ve got to nail down your hard infrastructure and make sure you sustain it and keep it secure, and then you’ve got to implement soft infrastructure.

MH: The Highline then, as a ‘soft infrastructure’ project – with all its investment and returns – is an interesting case point. It provides people with a chance to interact, not only with each other, but with architecture. In a city short on public space, are there other areas planned for such encounters?

DB: The Parks and Recreation Department, in the last 10 years, has added more park space than at any time in the city’s history. It’s benefitted by some of the loss of manufacturing, such as at Fresh Kills. That’s going to be a huge park. You don’t need a lot of acreage to create successful public places; it’s not so difficult.

MH: Are there many restrictions in planning when trying to get new public spaces through the authorities? I’m thinking here of the Trump Hotel SoHo that is a sort of quasi-hotel/apartment building, where they pulled the footprint back to get public space at the rear, just so they can attain a greater overall height.

DB: There used to be this thing called POPS, Privately Owned Public Spaces, and they’d give developers additional floor area if they would provide public space in the base of the building. It was a bit of a disaster. They got an awful lot of extra floor area for not very much return, and then they were suddenly privatising them. So it would be ‘public’, but you’d never know it; they’d put gates on it – the city had to eventually sue them. It turned out not to be a good deal for the city at all, we’ve actually ended that program of bonuses for public plazas now.

MH: What are the key areas of concern to you in your role as commissioner? And how can public spaces alter these?

DB: Well, the first thing to know is that we have a world epidemic of obesity, it’s terrifying. Even more terrifying is childhood obesity. It’s the number one health problem. It’s not just ‘fat Americans’; it’s everywhere – a ‘disease of energy’. We eat too much of the wrong things and we’ve become completely sedentary. We drive everywhere, we take lifts and elevators, escalators. We don’t do enough physical activity in our normal daily life. As architects and planners, we’re part of the problem, we’ve made it easy. But we can change that. In New York, bringing staircases back into prominence in buildings and saying, ‘Not only is it healthier, but it’s actually easier.’ For example, in The New York Times’ building now, there are staircases connecting the intermediate floors, so instead of wandering over and waiting for the elevator, people run up and down the stairs. Then, of course, there needs to be transit-oriented development, making the public realm more walkable – walkable cities. All these will contribute to greater mobility and will help with the war on obesity.

MH: Contemporary architecture may have a fascination with two aspects: the surface and the programmatic core. But no one really marries the two together. We need to be more successful in mediating them and to actually design from within architecture. So, when you’re looking at the staircases and other robust elements of architecture, instead of just the facade alone, it is quite prescient.

DB: Yes, I would definitely agree with that. Did you read the piece in The New York Times about [Santiago] Calatrava’s buildings leaking and everyone is suing them? It basically said that he’s not paid attention to the functionality of what he’s designing. There is the whole school of thought, all this parametric design and the ability to do astonishing things with materials and structure now. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword because I think architects do get obsessed with all of that and they lose sight of what the buildings are really for, sometimes.

MH: You’re coming to Australia as part of the University of Melbourne’s Festival of Ideas 2013, what do you have planned for while you are here?

DB: I’ve never been to Sydney, so I’m there Sunday and Monday, and Monday evening I go to Melbourne. I’m talking there [on 2 October] about ‘active design’ and about a healthy city, as well as what makes a liveable city. I’m chairman of an organisation called the Centre for Active Design and [University of Melbourne professor] Billie Giles-Corti has been a partner with us on various projects. The idea there is to improve public health by changes to the built environment, so it’s making mobility more possible in buildings by focusing on staircases, plazas and bike lanes. Then on Saturday I’m going to Auckland, New Zealand. Just to take some R&R and hike around before heading back to New York.


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