9 Ways to Transform New York into a City of Great Places

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

In all five boroughs, the term "public space" is still limited to parks and plazas in many people's minds. Without a doubt, the city's major parks are top-notch, but any city, let alone one as vast as New York, needs more than a few flagship parks to sustain a thriving public environment. It also needs squares, neighborhood parks, streets and community institutions to all function as active, welcoming public spaces.

Although the city prides itself on its public life, New Yorkers inhabit a public realm that pales beside what it could become. Many neighborhood streets and most major avenues are hostile settings for pedestrians; too many plazas outside major buildings are lifeless and cold; smaller parks, plazas, and squares are poorly maintained; and local institutions such as schools and libraries seldom enjoy the strong public presence they deserve.

These problems are intertwined. The only way to untangle the knot is to strategically coordinate solutions that complement each other. In that spirit, PPS proposes nine steps to transform New York into a city of great places.

1. Create a Comprehensive Public Space Agenda

The first step in transforming New York into a city of great places is to identify locations throughout the five boroughs where existing public spaces are underperforming, or where new development should be accompanied by new public spaces. The final product of this census would be a comprehensive public space agenda--a plan to guide future improvements. Such an approach is already taking off in London, where Mayor Ken Livingstone has initiated the "100 Public Spaces Programme," declaring that "creating and managing high quality public spaces is essential to delivering an urban renaissance in London." The first ten pilot projects--a mix of squares, parks, streets, mixed-use districts, and waterfront areas around London--are now underway.

The Bloomberg administration could take this idea even further by targeting the key public spaces in New York's neighborhoods. Using the city's 59 Community Board districts as the standard unit, the goal should be to identify the ten most important public spaces in each neighborhood. A district-by-district approach would encourage residents and city officials to look at their neighborhoods anew and bring unexpected possibilities to light, resulting in a broad public space agenda that puts everything on the table and expands New Yorkers' very notion of what constitutes public space.

For instance, a vast number of asphalt-and-chainlink- fence schoolyards are begging to serve a broader purpose--for both students and the general public--than their current incarnations permit. Few people in New York are even talking about the unmet potential of these neighborhood assets. In contrast, Chicago, under the leadership of Mayor Richard M. Daley, has achieved a resounding success by making school grounds multi-purpose destinations.

Any public space agenda must also be integrated with new development projects. New York City real estate is more valuable than ever. The Bloomberg administration should take advantage of this climate by creating incentives for developers to preserve and enhance the public environments that are so greatly affected by their projects. In addition, a small tax on new development (successful in Chicago) could fund many of the improvements identified in the process of creating a public space agenda.

For this to happen, the city must cease acting out of fear that investment will flow elsewhere if it stops coddling developers. Twenty or thirty years ago, that approach made sense, but not anymore. New York neighborhoods have become so desirable to developers thanks in large part to the hard work of residents and community groups; now that developers are cashing in on citizens' hard work, it's imperative that those same community groups are listened to about what shape new development takes. Otherwise, the city may lose some of the very qualities that sparked its real estate resurgence in the first place.

2. Balance the Needs of Pedestrians, Transit, Bicyclists, and Cars

If streets are New York's circulatory system, then sidewalks are its capillaries and pedestrians its lifeblood--delivering essential nourishment to businesses and other institutions. Yet the city continues to design and manage streets and sidewalks in a way that emphasizes the movement of cars and trucks above all other uses, even though just six percent of Manhattan shopping trips involve a private car (Schaller Consulting, Necessity or Choice? Why People Drive in Manhattan, 2006). The result is a public environment that marginalizes pedestrians, bicyclists, and bus riders. Even worse, it puts everyone in danger, including motorists. So long as moving traffic remains the major goal of local transportation officials, New York will continue to have mean streets, where being run over by a car is one the leading external causes of death for most demographic categories. Doing away with outdated practices that favor the auto will make New York a much healthier city. Here's how to do it. Allocate more space for pedestrians. The highest and best use of New York's street space is to support pedestrian activity and access. On nearly all the major avenues in Manhattan--and many in the outer boroughs--traffic capacity should be reduced and sidewalks widened. Times Square is a prime place to start implementing this strategy. This kind of pilot project at the city's most heavily trafficked location will demonstrate the economic value of a pro-pedestrian approach and dispel the myth that reducing car capacity in one place results in more traffic elsewhere. (Empirical evidence shows that people consolidate car trips or choose other modes of transportation if driving becomes less convenient [S. Cairns, S. Atkins and P. Goodwin, Disappearing traffic? The story so far, 2001].)

Reform parking incentives. The more parking is available in a given location, the more people will choose to drive there. If parking is reduced, people will still travel to that location, they'll simply do it by other means. Rockefeller Center, for instance, remains as popular as ever even though its parking garage was recently removed. Today there is too much parking in New York, because the price of parking does not reflect its true costs. A tax on parking garages and an increase in parking meter rates at high-demand areas and times of day will provide strong incentives to travel by means other than the auto, with revenue set aside for groups like BIDs to use for neighborhood improvements. Institute congestion pricing. London's well-known congestion pricing system has significantly reduced traffic in the center city without hurting business. New York could implement its own version in Manhattan with similar results. The majority of workers who drive into Manhattan already have a viable transit alternative, while people who have nochoice but to drive will enjoy significant time savings to compensate for the added cost. Congestion pricing will also reduce the impact of cars on the outer boroughs, as fewer people will drive through them to reach Manhattan. Reduce the effect of "choke points." New York's bridges, tunnels, and important intersections act as choke points, creating huge bottlenecks of traffic as cars queue up to pass through them. So many vehicles accumulate that nearby neighborhood streets become mere storage space for cars, overwhelmed by traffic, noise, and exhaust fumes. This happens because the streets that feed into places like the Manhattan Bridge and Times Square are designed to carry much more traffic than the choke points themselves. Narrowing the feeder roads will not reduce overall capacity, since the choke points already cannot carry any more vehicles. But it will encourage drivers to seek other means of transportation, and rid the city of its worst, most aggressive driving. In Chicago, such a strategy has even been shown to improve capacity: With fewer conflicts and lane changing, traffic moves at a steadier pace. Invest in other modes of transportation. London uses its congestion pricing revenue to fund transit improvements. Likewise, New York should invest in its most under-utilized transit option: the bus. With fewer cars on the road, bus routes can be made much speedier through improvements such as bus-only lanes, bus stop bump-outs, and bus rapid transit lines, which offer many of the advantages of light rail at a lower cost. Bicycling, too, can become a safe, mainstream transportation option and an enjoyable, healthy form of recreation for children, seniors and everyone in between.

3. Improve Streets as Public Spaces

New York City streets and sidewalks are practically devoid of amenities for people on foot. To borrow a term from the traffic engineers, New York sidewalks provide grade "F" level of service to pedestrians. Making pedestrians a top priority is the first step to creating streets that function as comfortable public spaces. The ultimate goal is not just to give pedestrians space to move, but to make streets destinations unto themselves.

As part of the New York City Streets Renaissance--our ongoing collaboration with Transportation Alternatives and the Open Planning Project--PPS recently created several photo simulations depicting what real New York streets would look like if treated as public spaces. More pedestrian space makes it possible to place benches, cafes, shade structures, and public art on the sidewalk. Street vendors can set up shop without cramping the flow of foot traffic. At irregular intersections like Astor Place and where Broadway crosses major avenues, there’s even enough room to create great public squares.

When New York's streets serve as lively pedestrian destinations themselves, it will become easier for people to access other destinations--from new public squares to neighborhood delis, major cultural institutions to local playgrounds. In fact, this is perhaps the best way for the city's over-taxed transportation system to increase its performance. Simply put, by turning streets and sidewalks into destinations themselves, New York can connect more people to more places--accomplishing more while driving less.

4. Develop a Full-Fledged Public Market Program

For 25 years, New York's Greenmarket farmers have brought produce from all over the region into the city, preserving family farms and creating vital urban-rural links while transforming places like Union Square for the better. In recent years, several dozen independent farmers' markets have sprouted up across the city’s lower income neighborhoods, seeking to bring the same kinds of benefits as Greenmarket, while at the same time providing opportunities for youth, community gardeners, and local entrepreneurs.

The innovations should go far deeper, however. Most markets have an ephemeral quality--here today, gone tomorrow--which limits their importance in the communities where they operate. Strengthening markets' physical presence would create mini "town squares" where a broad assortment of activities and events could thrive. In short, market sites would become more widespread, diverse, and meaningful destinations that benefit farmers, vendors, and communities alike.

In addition, the growing popularity of farmers markets has laid the groundwork for a new public market program. Such a program would build on the many positive effects of markets--from addressing health concerns like diabetes and social isolation to fostering local economies. It is the next logical stage in the evolution of New York markets from venues to buy food into full-fledged engines of community development that harness the creative energy of each neighborhood.

Opportunities abound for these new public markets. In a city where nearly three million people are foreign-born, a network of neighborhood public markets would open fresh avenues of opportunity for "new New Yorkers." A 2003 study conducted by PPS for the Ford Foundation revealed that well-conceived public markets are especially valuable in lower income communities where residents need low financial thresholds to launch new businesses.

New York City needs some mechanism, perhaps a non-profit development entity, to facilitate the startup of new markets, especially on underused city-owned property or other public spaces that should be centers of civic life.

5. Ensure that Contemporary Architecture Creates Urban Buildings

As one of the first skyscraper cities, New York had to figure out long ago how new types of buildings could be successfully incorporated into a functional urban setting. Consequently, it boasts many of the world's best high-rise buildings. Rockefeller Center, for instance, is one of the rare mixed-use developments where the uses truly mix, as art, business and retail all come together. And the Empire State Building, still one of the world's tallest, is so human-scaled at the sidewalk level that people standing in front of it often stop passersby to ask where it is.

However, in recent years New York has been bombarded by a different kind of architecture, one that is fundamentally un-urban and incompatible with the pedestrian-oriented environment necessary to a vital city. The new Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle may be the most high-profile--and wrongly praised--instance of this type of building. This new breed falls into the same trap that marred Houston's downtown building boom in the 1980s -- dead, blank bases that do not engage the pedestrian.

Several years ago an exhibit at the Municipal Art Society titled "No More Blank Walls," based on the work of PPS's mentor William H. Whyte, called for an end to the practice of constructing blank-walled buildings that prevailed in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. We have still not absorbed the lessons of those failures. With New York's streets designed predominantly for cars, the continuity of engaging ground floor activity is the major reason why walking in the city remains a great experience. A concerted effort must be made among architects, clients, and city agencies to halt the deterioration of the pedestrian environment and ensure that new buildings are truly urban.

6. Fulfill the Potential of the Waterfront

New York boasts one of the most extensive urban waterfronts in the world, an unparalleled asset that has been largely inaccessible for decades. In the 20th Century, the city made the mistake of replacing its working waterfront with a driving waterfront. Now, just when it appears that large swaths of the water's edge may finally become available to the public, New York is on the verge of squandering the opportunity again. Tomorrow's waterfront may prove just as one-dimensional as today's, with drab parks planned for the east side of Manhattan and the downtown Brooklyn waterfront, ground already broken on the Red Hook IKEA, the edges of north Brooklyn zoned exclusively for luxury high-rises, and a BJ's slotted to move into the old Bronx Terminal Market on the Harlem River.

Commercial and residential development belongs on the waterfront. Parks belong on the waterfront. The problem is that current waterfront plans support the domination of a single use--be it apartment towers, green space, or big box retail. This is a recipe for mediocrity.

The world's best waterfronts feature a rich diversity of activity, with no single use outstripping the others. New York can still become a great waterfront city, but only if the new round of projects evolve beyond the narrow confines of one-dimensional plans. The full range of possibilities for waterfront sites must be explored. Instead of big box stores choking off activity with their parking lots and traffic, or high-rises erecting a visual and physical barrier to the water, or passive parks that monopolize space, waterfront development should strive to balance commerce, housing, recreation, maritime activity, and other uses. Connect this mix to interior neighborhoods with improved surface-level transit service and walkable streets, and New York will finally have the waterfront it's been yearning for.

7. Restructure City Agencies

Implementing a public space agenda means improving the places that New Yorkers use every day. This approach encourages collaboration between city agencies, transcending the individual silos that define different disciplines today. The Bloomberg Administration can foster a new sense of partnership by forming small, interdisciplinary teams drawn from the departments of Parks, Transportation, Buildings, and City Planning. These teams could then join forces with community organizations to improve specific places, like Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza or Manhattan's Madison Square, where their responsibilities overlap.

The changes shouldn't stop there. High-quality public spaces are not just the concern of planning-related disciplines and departments: They can also make a dramatic difference for schools, small businesses, cultural institutions, public health initiatives, and environmental quality. It should become obvious that many city agencies have a stake in improving New York's public spaces, but they are not yet organized to act on this interest.

In his first term, Mayor Bloomberg restructured large public sector entities to deliver services more effectively; in his second, that same drive to improve government performance should be applied to the agencies responsible for our public spaces.

8. Reinvent Community Planning

Ideally, New York's Community Boards should take the initiative to help residents shape their neighborhoods, but that rarely happens today. More often, they are viewed as impediments to development. But the truth is more complex and offers a number of insights into how the promise of Community Boards can be fulfilled.

Community Boards tend to act as vehicles of opposition because that's how their role has been defined in practice. In a typical development project involving public property, the Community Board becomes involved usually after something has been proposed. This process does not encourage community representatives to exercise real creativity or leadership. They can only react to what's already on the table. Likewise, the neighborhood plans that Community Boards develop have little bearing on what actually gets built. New York encompasses 59 Community Boards, yet only seven community-based plans have been adopted by the city in the last 16 years (for more information, see the Municipal Art Society's excellent 2005 report, Livable Neighborhoods for a Livable City).

The city should reinvent Community Boards by adopting their plans as legitimate goals and asking communities to articulate their aspirations, needs, and priorities at the beginning of the development process. When officials, developers, and designers start working with communities as equal partners, they will benefit from the collective expertise of the people who have the most at stake in the project. The community, in turn, gains more say in changes to their neighborhood and thus becomes more invested in seeing them through.

Community Boards themselves need to adapt to this new way of doing business. They must become more open, transparent, and engaged with their constituencies if they are to proactively shape the future of their districts. They should become highly visible forums where leadership from every stratum of society is exercised. Working with the vast number of grassroots neighborhood associations in the city, Community Boards could facilitate Placemaking projects by convening and coordinating the efforts of these organizations. New York was once a leader in the movement towards community-based planning, and it can lead again by adopting a new model for Community Boards.

9. Manage Public Spaces for Public Outcomes

Without good management, underutilized places will remain underutilized, and potential community assets will be wasted. To produce successful results over the long run, a public space agenda must include strategies for ongoing management. It may not sound dazzling, but PPS has found that management is responsible for eighty percent of a public space's success. Current public space management practices in New York, however, threaten to privatize places or limit their use to a narrow constituency.

Recognizing the importance of management, the city has turned increasingly to Business Improvement Districts to take responsibility for public spaces. BIDs have proven effective at the basics of maintenance, security, and beautification, but they have yet to explore a broader public role. Small Business Services, the agency that manages their funds, should lead BIDs to form more community partnerships, program their public spaces, and implement streetscape improvements. BIDs themselves would relish the new role. Some are already raring to work with surrounding communities on bold visions for what their public spaces could become--they just need the go-ahead.

The counterparts to BIDs are Park Improvement Districts, a new form of management with its own limitations. If PIDs follow the current BID model, these parks may be little more than well-maintained but passive green spaces. Furthermore, there is a risk that PIDs will mostly serve the property owners whose taxes fund them, rather than the public as a whole. Rather than tread the dangerous path toward park privatization, PIDs should strive to achieve more public outcomes. In fact, a better name would be "Public Space Improvement District," since the goal is not just to make parks financially self-sufficient, but to create spaces that engage the broader public.

The same public goals should apply to New York's multitude of privately owned public spaces, particularly its "bonus plazas." These spaces are the result of a 1960s zoning law that allowed developers to build taller buildings in exchange for creating plazas at street level. The majority of bonus plazas are unfortunately just empty open spaces that provide little of the public benefit developers were supposed to deliver. Hundreds of these barren plazas could be converted to active public use if building owners, tenants, and neighborhood businesses collaborate to fund creative improvements and manage these public spaces to meet community goals.

The transformation of bonus plazas--and the evolution of BIDs and PIDs--depends on action by City Hall. Only a city-coordinated effort can thoroughly influence and coordinate the disparate organizations charged with managing public spaces. By setting performance standards, providing technical assistance, and sharing best practices, the city can make sure that New York's public spaces achieve their promise of becoming great places.

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