Identifying the most important individual places in New York is one step towards developing a comprehensive public space agenda. But the city also suffers from widespread problems that can’t be fixed by targeting a few specific places. In many cases, New Yorkers have acclimated themselves to the point where they accept city-wide failures of the public realm as inevitable facts of urban life. Fortunately, other cities–some just as big as New York–have already proven the absurdity of such an attitude. London, Chicago, and many others are tackling similar problems head-on and discovering that the initial risk is well worth the final reward. It’s time for New York to do the same and start finding a way forward. Addressing these city-wide conditions will show that New York still has big ideas for improving its public realm.
Department of Transportation
While global rivals like London, Paris, and Barcelona put their weight behind major programs to deliver transportation infrastructure that supports public space and community life, New York City DOT’s chief goal has remained to move more and more traffic. A shift in priorities could get this crucial agency headed in the right direction. Recent announcements from DOT leadership in favor of more pedestrian- and bike-friendly streets suggest that a change in approach is indeed afoot. It remains to be seen if the promises will be kept, but with innovative leadership and sufficient resources, DOT could dramatically transform the city’s streets for the better, neighborhood by neighborhood, borough by borough.
The typical New York City school yard comprises a flat swath of asphalt bounded by a chain-link fence. In stark terms, it conveys the message that kids should be hemmed in and separated from the rest of the neighborhood. Students use these areas to hang out and play pick-up sports at times, but for the most part school yards sit empty and un-used. There is rarely, if ever, any indication that the space can be used after school hours or by outside groups. Given that most school yards feel like cages, who would want to?
Other cities are making impressive strides towards a more community-minded model for schools and school yards. Chicago’s Campus Parks Program has turned 100 asphalt school yards into “community centers” where parents and neighborhood residents socialize alongside kids enjoying small parks and playgrounds. Some Campus Parks host educational programs in gardening and science when school is not in session. Forty-one public schools in Denver have undergone similar transformations, and Los Angeles is working with the non-profit New Schools Better Neighborhoods to build new joint-use, community-centered schools. New York owes its schoolchildren an equally strong commitment to improving their daily environment.
Commercialization of Public Space
All too often, private interests take advantage of New York’s public spaces at the expense of people who regularly use them. Two of the most notable examples are Bryant Park and Rockefeller Center, which have succumbed to the forces of commercialization by leasing out their space for corporate events that exclude the public. Commercial activity, from food kiosks to markets to festivals, belongs in public spaces as long as it is publicly accessible and reflects the local community. New York could set a groundbreaking example for other cities by promoting such healthy activity and putting an end to exclusive, privatized use of public space.
In the 1960s, New York changed its zoning regulations to allow private developers upwards of twenty percent additional floor area if new buildings incorporated a plaza with public access. Hundreds of “bonus plazas” appeared in Manhattan’s business districts, but by and large they have remained dismal failures–for two reasons. First, during the period when most bonus plazas were constructed, developers made decisions about public space based on their fear of the “undesirable.” The misguided notion that spaces should primarily deter unwanted use actually prevented bonus plazas from attracting positive use. Second, the architects and landscape architects who designed the plazas made it their goal to create designs that reflected the architecture of the buildings. Creating an active, publicly usable space was a low priority, lost in the shuffle.
Attitudes have changed since then, bringing renewed hope for bonus plazas. The success of well-programmed public spaces like Union Square and the accomplishments of BIDs throughout the city have opened the eyes of today’s developers. They are primed to deliver an important missing ingredient: management. With active management, developers could make a huge leap towards achieving the original intent of the bonus plaza zoning changes: the creation of small public spaces distributed throughout Manhattan that serve as real assets for neighboring communities. The city should implement a “Bonus Plaza Placemaking Program” to spur developers to work with building tenants and nearby residents on converting bonus plazas from wasted open space to valuable community places.
In terms of geography and climate, New York has all the hallmarks of a great bicycling city: It is very compact and flat, with relatively mild weather for most of the year. But the reality on the street hardly lives up to the potential. To actually become a great bicycling city, New York needs to use a broader, bolder set of solutions than it currently employs. Today, DOT’s strategy for creating bike-friendly streets largely involves painting white-striped lanes on select streets to demarcate space for bicyclists. Many of these lanes simply function as drop-off areas for cabs and delivery vehicles. Most have no buffer zone, nor do they connect to other bike lanes or infrastructure. What’s more, the few roads with bike lanes already provide too much capacity for cars, so the DOT’s strategy does very little to actually alter drivers’ behavior to the point where they do not threaten the safety of bicyclists. In fact it is less than the minimum acceptable effort. To paraphrase Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, a bike lane where children are not comfortable riding is not a real bike lane.
In cities that are serious about creating a viable bicycle network (such as Chicago and Montreal), bike lanes are separated from traffic by physical buffers, or efforts are made to calm traffic on smaller streets so that bicyclists can move comfortably amongst cars. These cities are adopting the practice of providing bicycle racks at transit stops, workplaces, and shopping destinations. The notion that these solutions won’t work here–that New York is somehow different–is especially backwards given that residents have by far the lowest car-ownership rate of any big city in the nation. The DOT’s announcement in September 2006 that it will greatly expand bike facilities over the next three years may signal a welcome change in attitude. If New York continues to build on this initial commitment, we will discover that pedaling around the city is not just for couriers, radicals, and intrepid commuters. Bicycling would become a mainstream form of transportation, one that increases mobility for all ages, from young children to senior citizens.
Parking for Public Employees
The law–not to mention common courtesy–seemingly does not apply to civil servants such as court workers, police officers, and fire department personnel when it comes to parking around their offices, precincts and stations. The consequences are serious. Clogging the sidewalk with cars forces everyone, including senior citizens and children, to take dangerous detours into the street. The public employee parking perk also acts as an incentive for government workers to drive, contributing significantly to traffic congestion. And the whole arrangement exacerbates tensions between residents and public employees, provoking much justified resentment amidst the neighborhoods that are most affected. New Yorkers expect more, especially from their excellent police force and fire department. The continued flaunting of the law and disregard for local communities by a minority among these esteemed agencies is a blight on the reputation of both.