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Finding Public Space in a Crowded New York City

By Dr. Steven Cohen, Senior Vice Dean, School of Professional Studies; Professor in the Practice of Public Affairs, School of International and Public Affairs

With motor vehicles constantly whizzing by, people compete for space outdoors to walk, bike and sit down throughout New York City. Humans are making progress in this competition as vehicle spaces are reduced and public spaces increase. In addition to roadway conversions, new public plazas and greenways are being built to repurpose underutilized space for public use. Commerce requires places for motor vehicles to move people and goods through our crowded streets, but we are more than economic consumers, and our streets and land require a balance between motor vehicles and humans. From the High Line to Staten Island’s Freshkills Park to expanded waterfront greenways, New York has found creative ways to build new public spaces.

NYC has even managed to combine commerce with space for pedestrians by temporarily closing streets to motor vehicles. During the 2022 holiday shopping season, parts of Fifth Avenue were closed to traffic. According to a report by Juliana Kaplan and Eliza Relman in Business Insider:

“The evidence is mounting that making streets more walkable, bikeable and car-free is really good for business. A new report from Mastercard and the New York City Office of Technology and Innovation shows just what a boon opening up streets was for New York’s Midtown. During the 2022 holiday season, New York City Mayor Eric Adams turned an 11-block stretch of the iconic Fifth Avenue into an “open street” for three weekends in December. The experiment drove an estimated $3 million in additional spending at the businesses on those walkable streets, a 6.6% increase in spending over similar blocks that weren’t open to pedestrians, according to the report…. This is just the latest example highlighting New York City’s efforts to pedestrianize busy corridors. The city rolled out its Open Streets program in May 2020, and its Open Restaurants program, which allowed bars and restaurants to expand outdoor seating, in June 2020 as the city struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic. The aim was to give city residents and businesses more outdoor public space to use during a time when many indoor spaces were deemed unsafe. During the first two years of the programs, the city created 100 miles of Open Streets and 12,000 restaurants took advantage of the sidewalks and streets outside their doors.”

While the pandemic inspired a more creative use of the city’s streetscape, some of the lessons learned then are becoming institutionalized. The street dining sheds are being regulated and standardized and made seasonal. We have long closed streets on some weekends for merchants to sell crafts, clothes and a wide range of healthy and not-so-healthy food from street carts. We also see schools and community groups closing streets for cause-related fundraising fairs. The Fifth Avenue closing was expanded in the 2023 holiday season and in both of the past two years, the area around the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree was free of vehicles but loaded with crowds of visitors. Frequently, we see street closings for bike tours, marathon races and walks or runs to raise funds for health-related research and care.

Additionally, the city’s Department of Transportation has reclaimed some streets for permanent pedestrian and bike use. One of the great innovators of reclaiming streets for humans was Janette Sadik-Kahn, NYC’s transportation commissioner from 2007-2013, during the Bloomberg mayoralty. Her most visible victory over vehicles was closing some of Times Square to traffic and creating a permanent pedestrian walking and seating area. In some ways, the sheer volume of tourists made this move a necessity, but I recall once, in the late David Dinkins’ course at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, I heard then-Department of Transportation (DOT) Commissioner Sadik-Kahn give a talk about her method for creating these spaces—which I saw written up in a 2018 piece by Sean Doyle on the Smart Growth America website. According to Doyle:

“During her six years with NYC she showed her city—and the country—what can be accomplished when we put people first in transportation planning. Perhaps most famously, Sadik-Khan closed five blocks to cars on Broadway through Times Square and expanded the space for people as an ad-hoc park. With some paint and lawn chairs from the hardware store, the project was initially temporary. Then the results came in: crashes declined, travel times improved, and business was booming. Those outcomes were enough to convince Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other stakeholders to make the installation permanent, creating new space for people in one of the world’s busiest cities…. The use of temporary materials—like paint, temporary street furnishings, art installations and planters—was key, and it allowed Sadik-Khan and her department to test ideas and get community buy-in quickly. Instead of waiting years for planning reviews or complicated studies, improvements were made in a matter of days. “The proof,” she says, “is not in a computer model, but in the real-world performance of a street.” With those tools in hand, Sadik-Khan led the creation of more than 60 pedestrian plazas like the one in Times Square across NYC, converting more than 26 acres of car lanes into spaces for people.”

The work of reclaiming roadways for people has continued in NYC over the past decade. In addition, there is an intensive effort to create more public spaces in NYC. Two initiatives are worthy of attention. The first is the NYC DOT’s institutionalization of a program to construct new public plazas. The second is a major initiative to create greenways, connecting green spaces in underserved communities. According to the DOT website:

“NYC DOT works with selected organizations to create neighborhood plazas throughout the city to transform underused streets into vibrant, social public spaces. The NYC Plaza Program is a key part of the city’s effort to ensure that all New Yorkers live within a 10-minute walk of quality open space. Eligible organizations can propose new plaza sites for their neighborhoods through a competitive application process. NYC DOT prioritizes sites that are in neighborhoods that lack open space, and partners with community groups that commit to operate, maintain and manage these spaces so they are vibrant pedestrian plazas.”

In 2022, there were over 70 of these plazas open to the public, with more under construction. Additionally, utilizing federal infrastructure funding, NYC is building miles of new greenway spaces. In October 2023, Mayor Adams announced that 40 miles of greenways would be added to the existing 150 miles of greenways. The scope of this expansion was highlighted by the Gothamist’s Stephen Nessen in a story he filed at the time:

“The planned greenways include one that runs 10 miles along the waterfront on Staten Island’s North Shore from the Goethals Bridge to the Verrazzano Bridge. Another would run 16 miles in Queens along the East River and Long Island Sound from Long Island City to College Point. The plan would also improve cycling connections to JFK Airport with a new route through southern Queens, and a new 15-mile greenway in the South Bronx that connects areas like Hunts Point, Throgs Neck and Soundview to Randall’s Island. The funding will also help pay for the ongoing expansion of the Harlem River Greenway in the Bronx, officials said.”

In a world where most people live in cities and where over 70% of humanity will become urban dwellers by 2050, the creative use of land for rest, recreation and community gathering is essential. Since many urbanites live in apartments, access to outdoor space is not a luxury but a necessity. Human health and welfare require access to nature. This was recognized in Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 and has been accepted public policy in NYC for generations. The past three mayors of NYC have been dedicated to expanding parks and access to open space. It is one way that New York is transitioning into a sustainable city.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Columbia School of Professional Studies or Columbia University.


About the Program

The Columbia University M.S. in Sustainability Management program offered by the School of Professional Studies in partnership with the Climate School provides students cutting-edge policy and management tools they can use to help public and private organizations and governments address environmental impacts and risks, pollution control, and remediation to achieve sustainability. The program is customized for working professionals and is offered as both a full- and part-time course of study.

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