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meet our episode 43 guest Amanda O'Rourke

To make a city that works for everyone, the nonprofit 8 80 cities asks that we start with the perspective of an 8 year old and an 80 year old. Amanda O’Rourke shares how 300 communities have engaged at a human level, prototyped a solution, and then scaled from there.

Read this blog post to learn more about how city planners can create more livable communities. 

episode transcript

Cohen: Josh Cohen
O’Rourke: Amanda O’Rourke

Cohen: Remember episode 39 from a couple weeks ago with Nidhi Gulati from Project for Public Spaces about the importance of including the perspectives of children in placemaking?  Today’s guest, Amanda O’Rourke from 8 80 Cities builds on that concept by introducing a tool that you can use to help ensure that you build a city that works for everyone. Let’s go.

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future.  To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities.  Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real.  Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: Every once in a while you come across a tagline that is so descriptive and perfect that it just works.  And my guest today and her organization, 8 80 Cities, has one, “creating cities for all.” My guest is Amanda O’Rourke, the executive director of 8 80 Cities in Toronto.  Welcome to The Movement, Amanda.

O’Rourke: Thank you very much for having me, Josh.

Cohen: I want to get started by something that struck me in your bio, and it said that you are a, quote, “eternal optimist.”  I guess I really want to dig into that a little bit. Have you always been that way, and if not, what led to that? And really—this is the part that really kind of struck me is how does that impact your work?

O’Rourke: You know what?  You’re kind of the first person to ask me about that line in my bio.  And, yeah, it’s funny. Thinking about it and it’ll be—it sounds kind of counter intuitive, but I think where it comes from for me is a personal experience.  So when I was really young—I was eight years old—my father was killed suddenly in a car crash. And I think that really sort of rocked my world. Anyone who has sort of experienced that at a young age, I think, could sort of share in that experience that it just opens your mind to the fact that anything is possible, good or bad.

Cohen: Hmm.

O’Rourke: And I think that really influences the way that I think about my life and the impact that I could have, because I had the opportunity even despite this very tragic occurrence.  I had this wonderfully supportive community and family and understood that everything was okay despite, you know, the worst thing possible happening in my mind as an eight-year-old; everything was okay.  So I think that really helped inform this very optimistic attitude that I have today. I’m also a mom of three kids, and I think anybody who is a parent and sort of then experienced the world through the eyes of a child has a bit of optimism because they’re just so full of joy and wonder and curiosity.

Cohen: I also have three kids, so I can feel you on that one, and just seeing how they continue to look at the world in that way is really impactful.  Well, that is certainly a challenging beginning. And certainly I think it’s really amazing how you’ve used that challenging situation to really guide you from there.  So I want to maybe segue from that into your work. So tell us a little bit about what 8 80 Cities does and how it creates cities for all.

O’Rourke: So 8 80 Cities is a nonprofit organization.  We’re based in Toronto, as you mentioned. And our mission is try to improve the quality of life for people living in cities no matter their age, ability, socioeconomic status, their race, their gender, their sexuality.  We really think cities should be for everyone. And we often start a conversation with cities and sort of challenge cities in the role of streets and public spaces and how we design, plan, build, and manage them by asking a really simple but, we think, powerful question.  And that is, “What if everything we did in our cities was great for an eight-year-old and an 80-year-old?”

Cohen: Hmm.

O’Rourke: And this is really just like a provocation to get people thinking about how we’ve planned and designed our cities, thinking more about often the movement of cars than on the health and happiness of people and especially our most vulnerable residents.  So children, older adults, economically marginalized people have been really pushed out from a disinvestment in public space, and our streets are our biggest public spaces in our cities.

Cohen: And obviously that’s a really compelling way to frame it.  Right? When you just frame it that way it just is such a compelling way, because kind of maybe to use that example you used earlier where you really put it in the eyes of that eight-year-old or that 80-year-old and really kind of think about things in that way is such a compelling way to do it.  Do you ever receive pushback from, you know, especially city or local officials about that simply because obviously you’ve got the kind of vulnerable populations at eight and 80, but then you have this kind of big group in the middle that—do you ever get pushback from officials that say, “Well, yeah.  Of course we need to think about the eight and 80, but what about everybody else too?”

O’Rourke: Yeah, I mean, I think we generally don’t get a lot of pushback about sort of the question.  And I think everybody can picture in their mind an eight-year-old and an 80-year-old, whether it’s their daughter or their son or a grandchild or, on the other hand, a great-aunt or a grandmother.  I think people sort of understand the concept really quickly. And one thing that we do hear a lot of, this, like, “What about the 90-year-olds?” or, “What about the five-year-olds?” Of course, eight and 80 is really just a starting point, and for us it’s like a simple way to capture this idea of creating cities for everyone.

So, you know, people sometimes take it really literally, but that’s really not the intention.  The idea is to focus on age because aging is a universal human experience. And, of course, also thinking about how that intersects with other social identities like race, gender, income.  So the eight-80 is a starting point we always say, and it gets people sort of in a more comfortable sort of open mindset because they can think of that eight-year-old and 80-year-old. And then we can start to think about, “Okay, how do we actually create better, safer, more healthy, equitable environments that meet the needs of all residents?”  And eight and 80 is really just a starting point for that.

Cohen: If it works for the eight-year-old and the 80-year-old, it will work for everyone else as well.  That’s the fundamental premise there. And I think that—like I said, that’s really, really compelling.  You’ve worked on, I think, 200 different projects at 8 80 Cities, several dozen different countries. What are some of the tactical and repeatable things that you have done that have led to your success there?

O’Rourke: Yes, we have worked in a lot of different cities.  I think we’re actually now up to 300 different cities over 12 years.

Cohen: Wow.

O’Rourke: And with varying levels of sort of integration into that city.  So sometimes it is on on-the-ground projects and working really closely with the whole communities.  And sometimes it’s doing kind of presentations or capacity building with city leaders. So there’s different levels of involvement.  I think one of the things that we’ve learned over the years is to always come and lead with passion and with storytelling and emotion.

I think inspiration goes a long way.  I think to start a conversation, like I said, with that sort of question around eight and 80 and really thinking about how we can create cities that work for people and thinking about being good to people and what makes people happier and healthier, I think that has really proven successful, to start the conversation on a very human level.  I was at a presentation recently, and I was really struck by the person saying, you know, “Start by saying that you’re a human being. Like, how are you a human being and not so much a human doing?” [LAUGHS] Because we tend to start, you know, “I’m Amanda O’Rourke. I’m executive director. I’ve done this, this, this, and this.” You know, but actually, you know, who are you as a human being?  I’m a mom. I am a partner. I’ve had this experience. I think that goes a long way, is really starting with people not necessarily the space.

You know, our work is very complex and very contextual, so it really depends on the city or community that we’re working in, but in general I think the model that we use is start with engagement, start with people not the space, pilot or prototype—whatever you want to call that—take action in some way, and then the third step is kind of scale.  So engage, prototype, scale is a kind of system that we have found to work really well with actually achieving public-space transformations that we’ve been doing over the last 12 years.

Cohen: Wow.  And you said you’re up to almost 300 projects, so that’s just really, really astounding.

O’Rourke: Yeah, it’s wonderful work.  It doesn’t feel like work when you’re inspired all the time, I think, from communities.  I mean, it’s hard work, but I think it’s very rewarding work.

Cohen: Definitely.  So as you think—you know, our audience is a group of kind of present doers who are out there kind of doing this work to build our communities into this vibrant and equitable, accessible world that we all want to live in.  And then we also have some future doers, people that are not quite there yet but want to kind of be a part of this. What would you ask them, from your perspective as a leader in the community and a leader of a nonprofit organization that is kind of working towards this type of work?  What would you ask them to either do more of or to start doing? What’s missing now that this audience could get involved in or could start or could make better?

O’Rourke: I think one of the first things that comes to mind for that question is do more listening in general and really active listening to people in the community where you may be working and particularly looking at where people may be struggling and listening to their stories.  I think that’s a really important one. And I think also making more eye contact with people.

It sounds so, like, simple and silly sometimes, but I think it’s really amazing to see how much we’ve kind of designed our cities and our lifestyles to actually not have a lot of eye contact and personal connection with people.  So building those relationships and having connection with others who are maybe working towards the same goal or maybe are living in the community where you’re working and trying to do something positive, I think that’s a really great place to start.

Cohen: I love that example about eye contact, because every time I ride my bike or I walk or take transit, you get that engagement with the rest of the community in ways that you don’t get when you’re in a car.  And, you know, that’s just such a small, little thing, but it kind of it really forces you to be a part of the community in a way a car just gets in the way of. It makes just life feel just a little bit more rich.  You know?

O’Rourke: Absolutely.  Absolutely. And I think, you know, from—with my eight-80 hat on, I think some of the richest conversations and experiences that I’ve had in this work is actually listening a lot and having conversations with children and older adults.  I think they have so much to share about their community, and they have these wonderful perspectives on either side of the aging spectrum, which I think adds a lot of richness to what we understand about the community.

You know, you have on one side this sort of boundless curiosity and then on the other side all this institutional or knowledge around the community because maybe they’ve been there for a long time.  So that’s another thing that I would ask people to do, is sort of think about that eight-80 concept—sometimes we talk about putting on those eight-80 goggles—and use it to sort of inform your work.

Cohen: Wow.  That is powerful advice there, because I think that’s an audience that probably is not getting their perspective asked of enough, so I really love that perspective as well.  I want to kind of transition to this, which is as a leader yourself, what leaders motivate you and why?

O’Rourke: Great question.  I would have to say one of my sort of inspirations and women who I absolutely adore in this sector is Janette Sadik-Khan who is the former Commissioner of Transportation in New York City.  I met Janette, I think, in 2011 I want to say. We brought her to Toronto to kind of shake things up and show—at that time she was doing all of these amazing transformations in New York and was really leading the way, which is now sort of this huge, tactical urbanism bomb that’s gone off in so many cities.  And she was really at the forefront of that. So she’s been an inspiration to me in terms of her approach, her directness, her use of sort of humor, and a very compelling person to me as well in person, just very charming and humble. So Janette is one.

I would also say the founder of 8 80 Cities, Gil Penalosa, who has been an amazing mentor to me over the last 12 years where we’ve basically been working on the development of this organization together.  He is also a former commissioner in Bogotá, Colombia. And so his inspiration for creating the organization to begin with was, you know, really inspired by his work in Bogotá where they intentionally and very strategically focused on transforming streets, public transit, the TransMilenio, the world renowned Bogotá Ciclovía which is 1.5 million people every Sunday come out to use the street, 75 miles of streets, and of course all the aggressive sort of bikeway instillations across the city.

And that really informed this idea that public-space transformation could be a tool for achieving better social equity outcomes.  And that’s what inspired him later when he created this Canadian organization, 8 80 Cities, which I had a wonderful chance to sort of meet him in the early days and then help develop the organization from the ground up.  So I would say Janette, Gil, and then another one—last one, I promise—is a more recent one, Jay Pitter who is an inclusive city builder, author, placemaker.

She’s also a native Torontonian and has written extensively on sort of understanding the social dimensions of public space and understanding sort of how privilege and marginalization and power—and I’ve sort of just really been inspired by her work.  And also her approach is always to sort of, you know, as a leader it’s important to be vulnerable. And I think that that’s an important lesson for any leader, is, you know, come humbly and say, “I don’t know everything, but let’s try and figure out this solution together and work collaboratively.”

Cohen: I saw Jay at Rail~Volution.  She spoke in September, and it was really powerful there.  And that was my introduction to her, and I’ve since started paying more attention to her work.  It’s really, really interesting stuff, so I’m glad to hear that you’ve also benefitted from that as well.  Where can our audience learn more about the work of 8 80 Cities and how you’re impacting how our cities are experienced by people of all ages?

O’Rourke: Good old fashioned website,  You can find out all about our projects and some of the news highlights, some of the things that we’re working on currently, which we’re really excited about.  We had a really fun year. We did a bunch of demonstration projects in our own city, which is really exciting because we don’t often get to work in our own city.  So the website, Our Twitter feed at @880Cities. We also are on Instagram and Facebook, so we’re on all of it.

Cohen: Well, Amanda, thank you so much for sharing the work you’re doing with 880 Cities and how you’re looking through the eight-80 goggles to help everyone understand what it’s like to live in the city as an eight-year-old or as an 80-year-old and how if we do that we can have a better city for everyone.  So thank you so much for joining.

O’Rourke: Thank you so much, Josh.

F: Thanks for listening.  If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast.  You can find out more at


Read this blog post to learn more about how city planners can create more livable communities.