Alexandros Washburn, director of urban design at the Department of City Planning in New York City, will be speaking at the 5th International Urban Design Conference in Melbourne, 10-12 September.

Washburn has worked in both the private and public sector and has served as environment and public works advisor on Capitol Hill to US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and president of the Pennsylvania Station Redevelopment Corporation.

Architecture & Design spoke to him about his public and private sector work, New York’s urban design and what Australia could learn from the metropolitan city.

You’ve worked in the public and private sector. What are some key things you have learnt about each sector?

Urban Design operates at the intersection of politics, finance and design. To gain experience in all three of these disciplines you have to work in both the private and public sectors in your career. There is no other way to gain an understanding of the immense variety of endeavour that constitutes city building and the opportunities for design to bring the interests of each sector into alignment.

Each sector needs to understand the necessities of the other, and I only wish that more people in both government and the private sector had the benefit of experiencing each other’s perspective – in classical Athens, it was a civic duty that private citizens served periodically in the public sector.  

Is there one sector which you prefer to work in?

You go to the sector that can contribute the most to the city in real time. During mayor Bloomberg’s administration, we were in a tremendously effective period of government in New York City. It was a great moment to get things done with leadership in the public sector. Looking at my colleagues, my commissioner Amanda Burden and the various other commissioners and deputy mayors now in office, have a sense of common purpose and teamwork. I feel very lucky to be a part of this moment. 

What do you think of New York’s current and past urban design approach?

There are three great New York urban designers in history and we are judged even today by their standards. I like to call them ‘my three bosses’. For urban design to succeed today in New York, we have to achieve the quantity of Robert Moses, the quality of Jane Jacobs and the nature of Frederick Law Olmsted simultaneously in every project.

What is your ideal urban planning project in New York?

The High Line and the West Chelsea Rezoning is perhaps my favourite. It is a truly transformative New York project.

Image by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Courtesy of the City of New York and Friends of the High Line. Source:

What could Australia learn from New York?

That urban design is a very powerful tool – and it is meant to change things. If you are satisfied with the status quo, you don’t need urban design. But if you live in a city that is excited by the future, with an eagerness for transformation, you need to have an urban design capacity for leadership.