Amanda M. Burden, chair of the New York City Planning Commission, director of the New York Department of City Planning, and 2009 laureate of the ULI J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development, offers some thoughts about the selection of Campus Martius Park as the first recipient of the ULI Amanda Burden Urban Open Space Award. The award was created with ULI, Burden says, because of her belief “in the power of well-designed public space to be a focal point for cities, bringing together residents of all income, race, age, and social status.”

In my nearly 30 years in urban planning, it has become increasingly clear that great cities are not about buildings, they are about people. Public spaces that are destinations for all people boost the economic, environmental, and social well-being of cities. This is exactly what Campus Martius Park has achieved. There are people having lunch; relaxing in movable chairs; enjoying the sunshine, the flowers, and the waterfalls and playing petanque; walking dogs, strolling, lingering, and using this piece of Detroit as if it were their own. The park is used year round—with a skating rink in the winter and multiple events including concerts in the summer. The park design and programming clearly merit emulation.”

Campus Martius ParkCampus Martius Park is an exemplary model of a creative transformation of central city space. It serves both as a gathering place for residents and visitors, and as a much-needed economic catalyst to the city. This vibrant 2.5 acres of green space projects optimism and civic pride—quite the opposite of the dire stories and images often used to characterize this city.

What makes this park successful is that it is a place where people want to spend time, and, as the perception of the area changes, investors will want to spend money. The $700 million this park has triggered in investment and development in the surrounding area illustrates the multiple benefits of well-designed urban parks. When done right, the payback is enormous.

Campus Martius Park is a testament to the “decade of rediscovery” that defined much of the urban revitalization efforts of the past ten years, in which downtowns across America started attracting increasing numbers of young professionals and empty nesters seeking both the convenience and energy of urban life. As part of the evolution of central business districts into places to live and work—not just work and leave—more cities have started transforming vacant, abandoned, and underutilized space into vibrant urban open space.

In the post-recession economy, this trend will pick up momentum. It’s all about the fortunes of cities being determined by people being attracted to places to live and work, which then determines where companies choose to locate. As in the case of Campus Martius Park, the result is new life for downtowns. For cities that are looking to change their image, spur reinvestment, and create amenities for their residents, urban open space is the answer.