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The Sidewalks of New York

by Tom Angotti, Dec 16, 2003
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New York City's sidewalks are its best public spaces, the heart of the city's bustling street life. Sidewalks are everywhere, 12,000 miles of them, enough to stretch half way around the world. Everyone uses them. They move more people daily than cars and subways, and play host to more people than the city's parks. They take the place of the grand plazas and public squares that are prominent in many European cities.

Yet the city does not take responsibility for its sidewalks. Instead, they are treated as places to issue tickets and put advertising, as potential lawsuits, or as by-products of new development. Instead of a positive approach that celebrates sidewalks, the city spends most of its efforts trying to punish people who use them.

Recent actions by the City Council give the city new authority to control newsstands, newspaper boxes and anything else that obstructs sidewalks. In fact, the city controls just about everything that goes on sidewalks, and everything people do on sidewalks. The city has the power to give out a franchise for all "street furniture," including bus shelters, information kiosks, and public toilets, and to allow advertising on it all. There reportedly is even talk in City Hall about pasting ads on garbage cans. And the city is just waiting for Albany to renew a law that will let it repeat more of its periodic blitzes to remove street vendors.

But with all of its powers and ability to enforce them with fines, the city has no overall policy or plan for the use and enjoyment of public sidewalks. Its street furniture deals are mired in negotiations that are anything but public. It is time to put the public back in public space.

CONTROLLLING THE SIDEWALKS

Half a dozen agencies have their hands in the mix, but none are in charge. The Department of Transportation (DOT) and Police Department are mainly responsible for keeping sidewalks clear for pedestrian traffic. Transportation regulates the placement of newsstands, newspaper boxes, bus shelters, and bicycle racks. The Department of Sanitation is responsible for trash. The Parks Department plants and maintains street trees. And the Department of Consumer Affairs controls sidewalk cafes. The City Planning and Buildings Departments regulate the size of front yards mandated by the zoning code. (The city's Zoning Resolution, written in 1961, gave incentives to big downtown developers to build and maintain street-level public spaces, but the result has been mixed, and the rules are optional and only affect new buildings.)

All of these agencies are concerned with regulating how sidewalks are built and maintained. They can slap fines on violators. But none of them looks at how sidewalks are used and designed, how they can be more attractive public places, or how they fit in with, meet the needs of, and improve local neighborhoods.

NEED FOR SIDEWALK POLICY

New York City does not maintain the sidewalks that it owns, unlike many other large cities around the world. Instead, property owners are responsible for repairing concrete, sweeping and clearing trash, and shoveling snow. In September, revisions to the city's Administrative Code explicitly required property owners, except in areas with 1-3 family homes, to maintain and repair sidewalks and to carry liability insurance covering any mishaps. In designated areas, Business Improvement Districts maintain sidewalks, but in a way that serves the interests of merchants and not necessarily shoppers or passersby.

While the city's parks are planned, no one in government is responsible for figuring out the best way to design and use sidewalks. The agency with the most responsibility is the Department of Transportation, but their approach is to move pedestrian traffic just like they move vehicular traffic, by removing as many obstacles as possible. What is great about the city's street life is not only what moves on the sidewalks but what is stationary. That includes the gaggle of seniors sitting on folding chairs, the kids playing hopscotch, the double-Dutchers and, yes, the street vendors and homeless people that some people do not like to look at. In the city's effort to banish some people who it finds objectionable, we are all mugged of our public space, the great diversity of street life, and our civil liberties. We reduce the value of the democratic, civic life which, after all, brings together people who are very different from each other. New York can learn a lesson from Barcelona in Spain, a city with intensely utilized and popular public spaces. Planning and design plus social tolerance can make for exciting streets and sidewalks.

Not only are New York's sidewalks neglected, they are shrinking, especially in areas where they are needed the most, such as midtown Manhattan. Every time a new building goes up it increases pedestrian traffic, but sidewalk space does not expand. Instead of widening sidewalks and reducing the roadway, and thus cutting congestion and pollution, the city is putting up metal barriers to squeeze more pedestrians onto the existing sidewalks.

A POLICY FOR SIDEWALKS

What would a sensible sidewalk policy look like?

The first goal should be to improve the sidewalk experience for all New Yorkers and visitors. Both groups spend a good deal of their time walking, sometimes hours daily. Noise and air pollution are not only a nuisance, they are damaging to our health. Vehicular traffic is the main source of pollution, and it should be severely reduced, especially in densely developed downtown areas.

Secondly, strip our streets of advertising, the biggest source of visual pollution. Do not give this great public resource away to the highest bidders. We can have newsstands, garbage cans, public toilets, benches and green space without ads.

Third, improve pedestrian safety in congested areas by widening sidewalks, particularly at intersections, bus stops, and at wide crossings. Sidewalks do not always have to be linear. Creatively designed sidewalks can slow traffic, establish nodes for social activity, and accommodate a variety of street furniture without blocking pedestrian flow.

Fourth, stop trying to find the generic design for sidewalk amenities in this city of eight million people because it always turns out to be the easiest solution for the corporate contractor or city agency. It has produced dull design solutions that are just plain inadequate. Our bus shelters are great examples of this inadequacy. Empower community boards to develop their own plans and set up local design review procedures so that street life can reflect the particular conditions and history of the city's diverse neighborhoods. Of course, to do the job right community boards need some of the resources and professional help that are now squandered on schemes to wheel and deal generic contracts. Their mandate should be to make sidewalks inclusive public spaces open to all.

Finally, drop the ticket blitzing. Put community boards in charge of enforcement and have them work with property owners and local civic organizations. Ticketing may raise some dough for the city, but the revenue it produces, some millions a year, is a laughable fraction of the city's overall budget. Besides, enforcement costs millions and has proven to be largely ineffective except where there are active civic groups and property owners nagging the city to do something in the first place. Put the power in the hands of people who have a stake in preserving the city's vital public spaces.

The Project for Public Spaces celebrates great public spaces around the world and helps cities upgrade them (and they have some good and bad examples from Barcelona on their website). For some out-of-the-box opinions on the city¡|s street furniture, see their site www.localexpressions.com.

Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Planners Network Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning.

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