Nine Ways to Transform New York into a City of Great Places
Case study by Project for Public Spaces

In New York, the term "public space" is still synonymous with "parks" in most officials' minds-and 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 great plazas, squares, streets, neighborhood parks and community institutions to all function as active, welcoming public spaces.

Although the city is still vibrant in many spots, New Yorkers inhabit a public realm that is a shell of what it could become. Many neighborhood streets and most major avenues are hostile settings for pedestrians; 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 often intertwined. A neighborhood library can't hold an outdoor book fair, for instance, on a narrow sidewalk next to an unsafe street. Both problems are symptomatic of a broader pattern, in which the shortcomings of one public place undermine the qualities of others in a downward spiral. The only way to get out of this hole is to implement solutions that build off 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.

In New York, The Bloomberg Administration could take this idea even further by applying the concept of "The Power of Ten." Using the city's 59 Community Board districts as the standard unit, this strategy would identify the ten most important public spaces in each district. This would result in a broad public space agenda that puts everything on the table, thus expanding 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. No one in New York is even talking about the unmet potential of these neighborhood assets. (In contrast, Chicago, under the leadership of Mayor Richard M. Daley, has leapt to the forefront of making school grounds multi-purpose destinations.) A "Power of Ten" approach would encourage residents and city officials to look at their neighborhoods anew and bring unexpected possibilities to light.

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 moving cars and trucks as fast as possible above all other uses, even though just six percent of Manhattan shopping trips involve a private car. The result is a public environment that marginalizes pedestrians, bicyclists, and bus riders. Even worse, it puts everyone at 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 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.)

Parking reform. 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.

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 no choice 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 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
Making pedestrians the 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. Today, however, New York City streets and sidewalks are practically devoid of amenities for people on foot. Public seating is non-existent; bus shelters are atrocious; blank walls are common. To borrow a phrase from the traffic engineers, New York sidewalks provide grade "F" level of service to pedestrians.

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, 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 that our over-taxed transportation system can 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
New York's Greenmarket program brings produce from all over the region into the city, preserving farms and creating vital urban-rural links. Some of these markets have even connected with community gardens and neighborhood businesses. The innovations should go far deeper, however, as greenmarkets have not yet adapted their product mixes to respond to the needs of different communities, especially low-income neighborhoods. Strengthening relationships to the communities in which they operate would also allow greenmarkets to incorporate programming, events, and capital improvements to their sites. In short, greenmarkets would become more widespread, diverse, and meaningful destinations.

The spread of greenmarkets has also laid the groundwork for a new public market program in New York, one that could foster local economies and harness the creative energy of each neighborhood. The next generation should go beyond the cookie-cutter charm New Yorkers associate with markets; it should incubate start-up retail businesses and provide opportunities to self-employed entrepreneurs. Such a program is the next logical stage in the evolution of New York markets from venues to buy food into full-fledged engines of economic development.

As PPS's research for the Ford Foundation has shown, well-conceived public markets are especially valuable in immigrant communities, where residents need low financial thresholds to launch new businesses. In a city where nearly 3 million people are foreign-born, a network of neighborhood public markets would open new avenues of opportunity for "new New Yorkers." These markets would be especially valuable considering the shameful scarcity of public venues that truly represent the city's ethnically diverse population.

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. Have we 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. Expand Possibilities for the Waterfront
New York has already made the mistake of replacing its working waterfront with a driving waterfront. But now, just when it appears that large swaths of the water's edge may finally become accessible to the public, the city 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 the City has not used any imagination in its multitude of new waterfront plans. Instead, a single use-be it apartment towers, green space, or big box retail-will be allowed to dominate in each instance. 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 parks that monopolize space for passive use, 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 transcends the turf mentality that defines City agencies today, and will bring positive results only when these agencies collaborate with each other. The Bloomberg Administration can foster a new sense of collaboration 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. Current Deputy Mayors Dan Doctoroff and Patti Harris are well-positioned to lead such an effort.

8. Reinvent Community Boards
Ideally, New York City's Community Boards should help residents shape their neighborhoods, but that rarely happens today. They are often 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 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.

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. As the Municipal Art Society demonstrated in its excellent 2005 report, Livable Neighborhoods for a Livable City, Community Boards need to become more open, transparent, and engaged with their constituencies if they are to gain legitimacy. They should become highly visible forums where leadership from every stratum of society is exercised. Rather than competing with the vast number of grassroots neighborhood associations in the city, Community Boards should 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 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 the City agency that manages their funds--Small Business Services (SBS)--is not encouraging BIDs to explore a broader public role. SBS Commissioner Rob Walsh should lead BIDs to form more community partnerships, program their public spaces, and implement capital 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 will be little more than well-maintained but passive green spaces. Furthermore, they will mostly serve the property owners whose taxes fund the PID, rather than the public as a whole. (This is already the case for the parks in Battery Park City.) 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 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 the City. 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.