New York’s Most Exciting New Public Space is a Street in Queens

John Surico
Aug 5, 2022
Oct 7, 2022

Editor's Note: At the height of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Project for Public Spaces put out a call to embrace streets as places that can accommodate much-needed uses far beyond just outdoor dining. Since then, we've watched with excitement as the 34th Avenue Open Street has taken up that call right in our backyard, becoming one of the most quietly ambitious public spaces in New York City. Particularly as other American cities dismantle their pandemic open streets programs, this hard-working street in Queens offers an inspiring alternative vision of how we could build back better. To hear directly from Jim Burke, co-founder of the 34th Avenue Open Street Coalition, join Placemaking: Making it Happen, our online training taking place October 2022—registration ends September 29th!

The 34th Avenue Open Street, in Jackson Heights, Queens, officially starts at 7am, but the barricades start to appear just after 6am. That’s to account for not only the number of people who are already in the street then—walking, cycling, running, or just being—as well as the sheer length of it: nearly 30 blocks, from 69th Street to Junction Boulevard. 

But as the morning gets going, this stretch of 34th Ave comes alive.

The 34th Avenue Open Street in Jackson Heights, Queens. Credit: Elena Madison

As a neighborhood, Jackson Heights holds a plethora of titles. It’s one of the densest in the city, with about 40,000 people per square mile. It’s often referred to as the most diverse zip code in America—if not the world—with about 167 languages spoken. And all of those urban dynamics unfold in an area with some of the lowest access to open space in the city. For years, unless your building had a private courtyard, two-acre Travers Park was your backyard. In 2020, when Jackson Heights became 'the epicenter of the epicenter’ of the Covid-19 crisis, the Open Street changed that. 

New York City’s Open Streets program renders corridors into part-time spaces for programming, dining, or mobility. When COVID-19 hit, cities around the world had to create space fast, and streets were looked to as a solution. While few Open Streets efforts around the U.S. have stuck—including 63 miles of lost Open Streets in New York City—34th Avenue has bucked the trend. It still stands out as the longest of the city's permanent Open Streets at 1.3 miles.

“We want to make sure that this works right for everyone,” says Jim Burke, a rambunctious resident and safe streets advocate who helped create the 34th Avenue Open Street Coalition, the volunteer group that started it all. As we walked and talked one morning, people chatted nearby at newly added tables and chairs, and a dance class drew crowds. 

People celebrating a birthday party on the planted median of the 34th Avenue Open Street. Credit: Elena Madison

“As Covid cases go back up, you’ll see more people celebrating their birthdays out here, playing their radio, ball playing,” Burke explains. He points in another direction, painting a visual map for me. “Right down there is a Nepalese soccer game.”

The creation of this Open Street has depended on a groundswell of local involvement. Local advocates have long called for more open space in the area, but a string of car crashes on 34th Avenue and nearby thoroughfares in the years leading up to the pandemic—one of which left a nine-year-old dead—ignited a strong push for improvements. Even the most ardent opponents of the Open Street, who cite concerns over accessibility and parking, have agreed that the roads around schools and parks should be safer. More recently, Mayor Adams visited 34th Avenue alongside the NYCDOT commissioner just two months into his tenure.

But the latest vision for 34th Avenue take the idea of an Open Street even further. While other Open Streets are evolving into “bike boulevards” or bike-priority lanes, car-free plazas, or “shared” streets with a pedestrian and cyclist focus, 34th Avenue Open Street is a step in a wholly different direction. It embeds the Open Street into its surroundings, making the street appear more like a linear park than, well, a street.

“It’s the first superblock in New York City,” says Council Member Shekar Krishnan, who represents the Jackson Heights area.

Anatomy of an American Superblock

The first phase has fully pedestrianized both lanes of the street adjacent to Travers Park, adding street furniture and a defined cycle lane. The result is what feels like an extension of the park onto the street. The design also intentionally creates a filter for vehicles; in effect, 34th Avenue no longer allows pass-through traffic.

The first fully pedestrianized piece of 34th Avenue Open Street creates a traffic filter on the street. Credit: John Surico

The next block is a hybrid: one lane is “shared,” the street marked with light beige paint and incongruent traffic markings to slow down drivers, who are still allowed to slowly enter and park. (The Dutch fietsstraat, where “drivers are a guest,” comes to mind.) Outsized curb extensions, equipped with planters, and soon granite blocks, act as 24/7 gateways, while the other lane is pedestrianized. The next block is a mirror image of the same design, further discouraging continuous travel by car. 

This first phase near Travers Park is what’s known as the “public realm core” of the evolving 34th Avenue Open Street. The design encourages drivers to avoid it; car access is possible, but more of a trip. The next phases will see a similar redesign at the east end of the Open Street, where green space access and household incomes trend lower. Later, another will come at the other end. 

By the end of the redesign, there will be six touch points along the 1.3 mile stretch that will either become a plaza or shared street by the end of 2023. The completion of these six people-focused spaces is ultimately what will lead to this Open Street evolving into a true superblock.

The new layout of 34th Avenue Open Street’s public realm core. Credit: NYCDOT

Another important reason for the success of the 34th Avenue is the way the street interacts with nearby schools. There are five schools directly along 34th Avenue Open Street, not counting the ones just off of it. During the school year and summer camp, the morning and afternoon bell sees hordes of families empty out onto 34th Ave. Graduation ceremonies, plays, drop-offs, and pickups have made schools some of the most active users of the space.

“It’s making schools safer. It’s creating more space for children to play, despite the overcrowded nature of schools. It’s great for children’s health, with exercise,” said Council Member Krishnan, who was elected on a platform that made the Open Street a focal point. “From an education, public health, and climate standpoint, these are all things that are crucial.”

34th Avenue Open Street combines and iterates on the existing street design toolkit of the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT). Curb extensions, “shared streets,” plastic delineators, and street furniture are now common currency in New York City’s streetscape. But in terms of typology—residential, not commercial—and different needs—like strong ADA accessibility, schools, and mobility—34th Avenue Open Street in Jackson Heights is unlike anything before it.

Partnering with the Community

The speed of implementation has been astonishingly fast, at least by planning standards. The first phase, which began implementation in June of 2022, was up and running in a matter of weeks. Work on the next phase is expected in mid-August, if the not-so-subtle “Do Not Enter” signs hanging on street poles, still wrapped in black plastic, are any indication. But small tweaks—a curb extension here, a planter there—are ongoing.

That haste comes, however, after over a year of community engagement. “We did a huge amount of outreach,” said Jessica Cronstein, an urban designer with NYCDOT who has led the 34th Avenue Open Street project. “We did multiple workshops in multiple languages. We also did a survey that was pretty in-depth about how people wanted to use the corridor going forward, both in terms of passive recreation as well as movement and modality.”

Children in Jackson Heights now have a safer open space in which to play. Credit: Elena Madison

City officials, including Krishnan, met with groups both for and against the proposal. Volunteers, familiar with the day-to-day operations, put forward suggestions that NYCDOT ultimately incorporated, like leaving some space between the bike lane and the flowery median that runs the length of the avenue, where people like to sit and gardening meetups are held. Accessibility was also considered, especially given that along 34th Avenue is a naturally occurring retirement community (NORC).

“What we’re looking to do to support equity across all of our Open Streets is to balance what partners do best, like organizing, programming and keeping the space relevant,” says Emily Weidenhof, the Director of Public Space at NYCDOT, “to what the city can support, which includes everything from evolving the design to full maintenance services.”

From taking a break to going on a healthy walk, local residents are enjoying the new permanent Open Street along 34th Avenue. Credit: Elena Madison

So in the first year, the 34th Avenue Open Street Coalition, led by Jim Burke and others, handled operations and programming, assigning different stretches to volunteers for barricade setup, check-in, and breakdown at 8pm. They joined a nonprofit and fundraised for stipends, alerting nearby groups that the street was available. Someone taught a Zumba class, another salsa. Races were held for kids, alongside food distribution services. A regular programming schedule with activities almost every day has grown from that seed.

While the Coalition still facilitates that today, it gets help from city-funded activities and The Horticultural Society of New York, whose employees are now charged with a number of Open Street operations. (Although Burke can’t resist correcting a moved barricade along his regular bike rides.) Teenagers from the city’s summer youth employment program are also pitching in. A like-minded group, the Friends of 34th Avenue Linear Park, formed to promote a long-term vision of what the street could be.

“It can’t always be a well-funded, high-capacity partnership,” continues Weidenhof. “We need different partnership models for our public spaces. And we had a strong partner with the 34th Avenue Open Streets Coalition.”

Learning & Building Momentum

Of course, no change is without its challenges. Shortly after I arrived, a driver slipped through the barricades and planters of the pedestrianized plazas, seemingly unaware of the new configuration. (Once Burke and other neighbors told her, she reversed and drove off.) Further east, a driver had hit the median overnight, the aftermath apparent in a downed sapling and skid marks. And in early July, a pedestrian was struck in a hit-and-run at the corner of Travers Park, right near the redesign.

With tables and chairs, as well as colorful plants, 34th Avenue Open Street offers locals a place to relax. Credit: John Surico

Once fully implemented, 34th Avenue Open Street will be evaluated in the fall, said NYCDOT officials, to see what the agency can learn from and improve upon—especially as other Open Streets face similar potential treatments. Volunteers are hoping for more physical barriers to prevent future incidents, and that one day the Open Street will extend further east, serving even more schools and parks. But for now, 34th Avenue Open Street is a remarkable community-led exercise in seeing what’s possible.

“I’ve lived here for two decades, and now meet families I’ve never seen before. We don’t want to lose that,” said Burke, as he greets passersby. “Some neighbors want a space that is quiet and idyllic, like a true park. But we also want this to be a neighborhood that’s alive and thriving after these last two years.”

“We’re all going to get to the same place,” he continued. “We just want to make sure we take everybody with us.”

John Surico is a writer and researcher who focuses on mobility and open space. He teaches at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and is the scholar-in-residence at Central Park Conservancy’s Institute for Urban Parks. He is a lead organizer with the 31st Avenue Open Street in Astoria, Queens, where he lives, and is the author of Streetbeat, a newsletter on cities and how they’re changing.

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