New York is a great city for two important reasons–its wealth of public destinations and the energy of its citizens. If city government and the private sector build on these assets, New York’s neighborhoods and districts will continue to flourish.

Both strengths are being challenged today, from the slow erosion of the sidewalk experience by worsening congestion, blank-walled buildings, and heavy-handed security measures, to the rapid increase in suburban-style proposals for big box stores and lifeless parks in prime waterfront locations. As New York grows at a breakneck pace, decision makers tend to pursue projects at the expense of the qualities that have made the city’s neighborhoods so successful. Thankfully, opportunities abound to roll up our sleeves and make sure New York remains the world’s most exciting city.

Places to go, things to do

The whole world knows New York for its livable neighborhoods, excellent parks, first-rate cultural attractions, and seemingly inexhaustible supply of new places to explore. Where these destinations are linked by walkable streets and continuous ground floor activity, the city thrives. However, New York’s attractions are becoming increasingly disconnected from each other. Large sections of the city’s pedestrian environment are now overwhelmed by traffic and sterile, anti-urban developments conceived by vanity designers.

When destinations are isolated amidst traffic-dominated urban fabric or buildings with monotonous blank walls, driving and parking become the experience of the city rather than walking and transit. Visitors and residents alike encounter dead zones, which they want to hurry through or avoid altogether. This is the beginning of the disposable city. Luckily, the solution is straightforward: Link the city’s great public spaces, neighborhoods, and institutions together into lively walkable districts.

New York’s unseen strength

You can’t see the other reason New York is a world-class city, but even the first-time visitor senses it intuitively. There is a powerful force that infuses the city with life and constant change: the energy of its citizens, who play a huge role in defining their neighborhoods. It is an incredibly diverse city where waves of immigrants continually put their stamp on the physical and cultural landscape. Indeed, the success of New York neighborhoods arises from the passionate participation of residents, activists and local entrepreneurs rather than from the clout of city officials or big business.

When city government steps in to control or restrain this energy, things go awry. All too often city officials fail to recognize, and sometimes even oppose, the citizen initiatives that create strong neighborhoods. New York has city departments overseeing transportation, parks, economic development, and police, but no successful mechanism to coordinate efforts in all these fields or connect them to neighborhood priorities. We’d see a big change in what could be accomplished if city agencies treated neighborhood associations as partners, rather than obstacles to overcome.

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