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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Better Managing Public Space is Key to New York City’s Recovery

Public space (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

Summer is in full swing and street fairs, parades, and block parties are enlivening public space across New York City. But these vital signs of city life exist alongside indicators of the challenges we are facing: trash blocking sidewalks, lack of staff to keep crucial community spaces activated, and the threat of traffic violence.

The activity on our streets, parks, and stoops helps define what makes New York special. These spaces would not thrive without committed neighborhood volunteers who fill in the gaps in management and operation on open streets, business corridors, and local parks as well as our waterfronts, plazas, and natural areas. This over-reliance on neighborhood partners is emblematic of a lack of a coordinated framework to adequately fund and manage our critical shared spaces.

There is currently no holistic management or investment in New York’s public space. Every Open Street, block party, or neighborhood safety initiative is the product of intense volunteer effort, organization, and coordination. Too often, city government agencies and departments are working in isolation instead of focusing on collaborative problem-solving. This has to change.

New York City needs leadership to ensure public spaces throughout the five boroughs can thrive regardless of available resources. We need public spaces that reflect the complexity of the communities that use them and can do the important work of bringing the city together.

Our organizations are pushing for innovative approaches to these issues. We believe the city must make a commitment and investment to equitably planning and managing our public spaces. We have joined forces to advocate for solutions in the shared public spaces that span interests and geographies — from commerce to culture, safety to sustainability, mobility to making space for play at the local, borough, and city-wide scale.

Our group envisions a public realm that celebrates and enriches city life. Well-managed public space is critical to keeping people safe, connected, and healthy. It reinforces the vitality of our communities and supports local businesses. Leadership can close these gaps and make this a reality in every neighborhood.

The innovation needed here isn’t just more bureaucracy, it is about how well the government is organized to address nuanced challenges that have real-world impacts on how people experience and work with our city’s public spaces.

Effective governance looks like expedited permitting for users in the public realm from street vendors to block associations. Designing spaces so that people can be comfortable in all seasons starts with a plan to plant trees for shade and ensure access to sun during the colder months. Partnership is sharing the responsibility for the success of Open Streets so that areas need not be anchored by a business improvement district to function. Cooperation is coordinating city services across departments to better support BIDs planning, managing, and programing public space. 

We call for structural leadership through the appointment and empowerment of a central, accountable Director of the Public Realm to plan for citywide needs. We call for management leadership through the creation of a new Office of Public Space Management designed to more equitably manage our streets, permits, and day-to-day operational needs for our most in-demand corridors. We call for design leadership to uplift the quality of public spaces and their interface with private developments that maximize the expertise of architects, landscape architects, and planners. 

The new city budget fell short of the opportunity to fully invest in our city’s shared spaces, meaning the gap between what is possible and what is funded exists department to department and neighborhood to neighborhood. This gap is further expanded by missed opportunities to advance mutually beneficial goals across agencies and address longstanding infrastructure needs in historically underinvested neighborhoods. Cuts to agencies are already being felt and seen across the city. Failure to fully fund the Streets Plan leaves too many gaps in our citywide system and pushes the responsibility to invest to a future administration and City Council. This choice to partially fund only prolongs the impacts and increases the costs.

Now that this year’s budget fight is over, we must advance and implement visionary policies that equip the city to coordinate, set goals, and actualize the benefits from a shared management framework. Ideas like the five-point plan by City Council Member Shekar Krishnan and the bills introduced by Council Member Carlina Rivera to create an office of pedestrians and require a citywide plan for greenways between the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Transportation are important opportunities.

The City Council is responding to pressing challenges on the ground but would benefit from expansion to cover more of the public realm’s critical systems and address opportunities for increased coordination and implementation. We are also encouraged by Mayor Eric Adams’ announcement of the creation of an interagency task force to ensure healthy commercial corridors in the Blueprint for Economic Recovery and the New New York Blue Ribbon Panel. 

We need leaders who increase collaboration across departments by setting and advancing meaningful goals for equity, livability, and performance. We need a dynamic investment strategy that can increase accountability, bring new infrastructure to underserved neighborhoods, and respond to opportunities to prototype and scale innovations within the public realm. 

The city we want now, as well as the city we are building for, is built upon the success of our streets and public spaces. Leadership helps us bridge the short-term opportunities to the longer-term strategies to keep New York City competitive, livable, and resilient. A holistic vision must combine funding, policy, and coordination to create a thriving and vibrant New York City.

Elizabeth Goldstein is the President of the Municipal Art Society of New York. Benjamin Prosky is Executive Director of the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter (AIANY). Jackson Chabot is the Director of Public Space Advocacy at Open Plans. On Twitter @AIA_NewYork@OpenPlans@MASNYC.

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