From Parking Space to People Place

by Anne Schwartz, Sep 23, 2008

In a city where every square foot is contested, how can we fit more greenery and public gathering spots amid the concrete? Why are the sidewalks narrow and the streets wide, making it difficult to walk in some parts of town? Should a quarter to a third of city streets be reserved for parking cars, or can some of this public land be put to other uses?

These are the kinds of questions raised by the transformation of more than 50 New York City metered parking spots into temporary public spaces on the second annual National Park(ing) Day held Sept. 19. This nationwide event, sponsored by the Trust for Public Land to call attention to the need for urban parks, has now spread to more than 70 cities across the country.

In New York City, the number of park(ing) spots more than doubled from the previous year's event. Organizers arranged sod, trees, flowers, benches and tables, as well as cardboard boxes, string and chalk, to create functional, if tiny, public spaces. The spots ranged from a meditation garden on a busy street in Williamsburg to a grassy patch filled with children coloring on Cortelyou Street in Brooklyn to an arbor in Nolita made of 88 upside-down white traffic cones.

The quirky micro-mini-parks invited passersby to experience how a public space can bring neighbors together and add life, color and a little breathing space to the urban matrix. As a participant in the "Stay-cation Park" in Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn explained his park(ing) spot in the 2008 Park(ing) Day video, "It's a place for people just to sit and enjoy. I've already heard some people say they've never actually looked at this intersection. It's like putting on a new pair of glasses."

What began as an attention-getting mix of guerilla activism and stoop-sitting has gained credibility as the city itself has begun to experiment with the kind of outside-the-box thinking Park(ing) Day celebrates. "For the first time, parking in New York City is not considered absolutely sacrosanct," said Wiley Norvell, spokesman for Transportation Alternatives, which organized the event in New York City.

The Difference a Year Makes

In the last year, as part of an all-out effort by the Bloomberg administration to enact the sustainability initiatives of PlaNYC 2030 before the mayor's term ends, the Department of Transportation has begun to shift the balance between the automobile and the pedestrian.

These efforts, led by transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn, seemed to intensify after congestion pricing failed to get off the ground earlier this year. Since last September, the Department of Transportation has carved 49 acres of new public space from the asphalt, including Broadway Boulevard, a series of pedestrian plazas created by closing several traffic lanes on Broadway from Times Square to Herald Square.

Further down Broadway, the transportation department in August replaced a lane of parking and a lane of car traffic at Madison Square with landscaped plazas and new bicycle lanes, creating 41,700 square feet of new public space. These additions have been relatively inexpensive, requiring little more than paint, planters, new surface coatings, and tables and chairs.

The changes have happened so quickly that an article in the New York Observer raised the question of whether Sadik-Khan was moving too fast: "The DOT's recently ramped-up pace has frustrated residents and elected officials, who feel they were let in on the decisions only after all the plans were made."

Sadik-Kahn responded that "consulting with the community is an important part of the process."

"We've got 6,000 miles of streets and over 12,000 miles of sidewalks, and we're trying to look at making them livable spaces, and not just these utilitarian corridors," Sadik-Khan told the Observer. "So when you take a look at the streets of New York, that's 80 percent of our public space. In some ways, I think of myself as the largest real estate developer in New York."

In another effort to increase recreational space, temporarily at least, the transportation department has closed streets. On three Saturdays this summer, the city banned cars on a route from the Brooklyn Bridge to Grand Central Station, turning Park Avenue into a highway for bicyclists, skaters and runners.

In Jackson Heights, residents received a permit to close a block of 78th Street every Sunday through November, expanding the neighborhood's one open space, 1.9-acre Travers Park. "My kids grew up in the park, but I feel like this is the first time that they really have room to run around," resident Mandy Un told the New York Times.

The Department of Transportation also has launched a PlaNYC-funded program to put public plazas in each of the community districts.

In a related PlaNYC initiative, the parks department added 94 new Greenstreets to the existing 2,260. The PlaNYC budget provides the first dedicated funding for this program, begun in 1996, to plant trees, shrubs and flowers on traffic islands and medians. It allocates $15 million for 800 new Greenstreets over the next 10 years, and, starting in fiscal year 2009, is supposed to provide the first funding for maintenance in the program's history.

Future Plans

More street rearrangements are in the works, including a long-delayed project to widen public and pedestrian space at Astor Place and Cooper Square and make the streets there safer to cross.

In October, the city plans to reconfigure the underused parking strip on both sides of Kent Avenue in Williamsburg as buffered bike lanes. The route is part of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway. The borough's growing legion of bicycle riders applauds the plan, but in what the Brooklyn Papers called a "bitter struggle for control of the streets," some residents of South Williamsburg say it would turn over too much space to bicycle lanes, clogging vehicular traffic.

Civic organizations and the transportation and parks departments are collaborating on an effort to completely rethink Grand Army Plaza, where a popular greenmarket, the main building for the Brooklyn Public Library, a memorial arch and a newly renovated fountain are encircled by confusing and dangerous roadways. The Design Trust for Public Space recently announced the top awards in a competition to reinvent the plaza and make it the gateway to Prospect Park it was originally meant to be. The top 30 proposals will be on display in the center of the plaza until October 13, and visitors will be able to vote for a "People's Choice" award. Meanwhile, the Grand Army Plaza Coalition and the Design Trust, taking inspiration from the contest designs, will work with the parks and transportation departments and local communities to create a new master plan for the plaza.

European cities have long understood how pedestrian squares and streets where people can gather, sit, talk, sip a cup of coffee and watch the world go by add immensely to a city's vitality. In New York, people are so accustomed to living within the grip of the automobile that it seems hard to imagine any other way. In the ephemeral spaces of Park(ing) Day and at the new public plazas popping up around the city, New Yorkers are able to see how much more pleasant urban life can be.