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Creating Great Places: A Conversation with Amanda O’Rourke

By Risa Wilkerson on May 18th, 2022

880 brightened

What do you say when you find an impressive global leader who is down to earth and cares about your organization’s mission? When I met Amanda O’Rourke, Executive Director of 8 80 Cities, I knew right away what to say. “Please join our board!”

Amanda was a key architect of the 8 80 concept and has worked on numerous projects related to parks, public spaces, and sustainable transportation in North America, Europe, Mexico, and Australia. Her leadership extends even further as she is the co-chair of the Children, Play and Nature Committee for the World Urban Parks.

How does she keep up with all of that and being a momma to three small kids? In her words, she is an eternal optimist and is passionate about transforming cities into great places for all people of all ages. I recently talked to Amanda about her experiences and connection to Healthy Places by Design’s mission. Below are some highlights from that conversation.

RW: When did you first experience the relationship between health and how a community or place is designed? 

AO: I have very strong memories of walking to the school bus stop with my older sister when we were around 7 and 10 years old. Being out without the supervision of my parents was exhilarating, a little scary, and so fun. I spent most of my childhood outside. Inside was boring and full of adults telling me what to do, but outside I felt liberated. I was a super shy, introverted kid and I built a lot of confidence in myself playing outside. What does this have to do with design? I was fortunate to live in a safe neighborhood with sidewalks and a park right across the street from our house. We went out and played, roamed, and biked on the weekends and after school. There were always kids out on the streets. I knew the names of our neighbors and they knew mine. I was lucky to have this experience. I now know that this provided me with so many valuable health and social benefits. The way we design our communities can be enabling to individual and community health, just as much as they can be drivers of exclusion and lead to inequitable health outcomes.

Your focus now is on how people live and move about in outdoor public spaces, often in urban environments. What keeps you passionate about that work? 

I love learning from and listening to people. I have always been a very curious person asking lots of questions and I love that I have the privilege of doing this every day as my job! I am very interested in people’s experiences in public spaces and how public spaces shape their everyday life. I also especially love listening to and learning from children and elders as they are often the most honest and unfiltered about their experiences. To be truly seen and heard is a powerful thing, and when you do that for and with someone you can’t help but feel passion and motivation.

Tell us one of your favorite learning experiences from listening to people?

I’ll give you two! One was from a focus group with seniors who self-identified as Hispanic and Latino. We popped in on an art class as part of a project we were doing related to addressing social isolation in winter. We were gathering input from all kinds of people from diverse ages, backgrounds, and lived experiences. We asked simple questions about their experience in public spaces in winter and asked for ideas on what would entice them to use public spaces more in winter. One woman who was speaking through an interpreter said “curling,” and the interpreter asked her twice “you want to do curling?” The lady didn’t miss a beat and said, “YES OF COURSE dear, I’m not dead yet!” I love this because there are a lot of ageist assumptions when we think about and design for ‘age-friendly’ spaces. It’s not just a bench, bathroom, and a quiet place to sit. While those are important, I think what we often miss is that the people and activities are what makes a place really come alive. Many elders I have had the privilege of listening to want to socialize and be active in public space. They are not a homogenous group and have all sorts of wonderful ideas of how they want to enjoy public spaces. I too went into that focus group thinking we may hear ideas about arts and cultural programs. The curling response was a great way to check my own bias.

The second one that stands out to me is from a seven-year-old girl. We did a big pop-up demonstration on a large commercial street in my hometown of Toronto in the summer of 2019. We partnered with the fantastic folks at Better Block who helped us transform one block of Danforth Avenue from a four-lane arterial that functioned more like a highway into a street that we hoped exemplified the city’s commitment to eliminating road fatalities (Vision Zero Commitment). In less than 24 hours with temporary paint, furniture, and 100 volunteers we created expanded sidewalks, two parklets, cafe seating, and physically separated cycle lanes with greenery and planters. We activated the parklets with local music performances and activations.

On the day of the demonstration, we saw kids as young as five riding on this one block over and over again, thrilled to ride this stretch of street that they thought, despite being a public space, was not for them and too dangerous. Seeing the absolute joy on their faces as they experienced what it would be like if the streets were designed with their needs in mind was worth all of the challenges working through city policies, processes, and politics! The best quote from that day was from that seven-year-old girl who said, “You didn’t just make bike lanes, you made a great street.” Which to me was so funny and astute because I had been doing media interviews all day and realized she spoke about the project in the simplest and clearest way. I wish I had used her line!

What intrigued you about being on Healthy Places by Design’s Advisory Board? 

I am always eager to learn from others and I love the collaborative approach that Healthy Places by Design has modeled for many years now. I feel like 8 80 Cities and Healthy Places by Design have aligned interests, values, and priorities but different ways of achieving their mission and vision. I know we will find many opportunities to learn from each other’s strengths and from areas where we each want to grow. Positive interpersonal relationships always weigh heavily on my decision-making, and I’ve had such wonderful interactions with members of the Healthy Places by Design team and have enjoyed working with you all on recent projects like the Socially Connected Communities Report. What it really comes down to is I always say yes to working with good people.

Well thank you. That’s wonderful to hear and we agree that building great relationships is just as important as the work! In fact, one of our internal values is joy. What brings you joy, especially during these challenging times? 

I love this question! What brings me joy is riding my bicycle, playing with my kids in the park, and drinking good coffee. But honestly, the coffee usually comes first.

I love a good cup of coffee, too, Amanda! Thanks for this conversation. If folks want to learn more about your work, where can they go?

They can go to 880cities.org or find us on our social media platforms with the handle @880Cities. They can also find me on LinkedIn.

 

Photo credit: 8 80 Cities

Author
Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

Action-driven optimist, abundance thinker, and simplicity seeker.