A Livable City For All
October 2nd, 2019
Problem and Opportunity
In New York City, our quality of life depends on the quality of our public spaces. We spend our lives on our sidewalks, in our parks, and at our museums and libraries.
But our public spaces have been neglected. Too many of our streets are unsafe and unsightly. Too much space is devoted to empty parked cars and deadly speeding vehicles, and not enough to sidewalks, street cafes, shade trees, benches, bus stops, and bike paths. Where we have world-class plazas, they are bustling and popular, but there are just too few of them. Construction debris, tangles of caution tape, thoughtlessly-placed traffic cones, haphazard security devices, empty newsboxes, and stinking piles of garbage bags mar what should be the greatest thoroughfares and loveliest neighborhoods in the world. Walking the streets can give the sense that there’s just no one paying attention -- that no one cares.
Our parks are unevenly maintained – flagship parks benefit from rich conservancies that provide world-class support while neighborhood parks languish, where they exist at all -- with too little money for regular maintenance. Bureaucratic red tape turns the simplest construction project – a playground, a ballfield, or a comfort station -- into a multi-year saga that leaves neighborhoods disenchanted and frustrated. Our libraries, pools, beaches, and cultural institutions could be models of what high quality, universal public services could be, but too often are hampered by limited hours and draconian rules that treat New Yorkers and visitors with suspicion and condescension instead of welcoming them with openness, trust, and dignity.
We deserve better.
Great public spaces improve social trust, reduce crime, improve quality of life, spur economic activity, and make our city safer, friendlier, and more humane.
With new rules, new resources, and dedicated focus, we can transform our city and become a model of high quality, inclusive, and humane urban living. We can breathe easier, sleep quieter, feel safer, and live better.
Here’s what we must do:
- Make our streets safe for all
- Transform our sidewalks into welcoming and pleasant public spaces
- Maintain and create lively and delightful parks, pools, and beaches for all
- Make arts, music, and culture available and accessible to every New Yorker
No person should be hurt or killed just trying to get around.
Hundreds of New Yorkers are killed in traffic crashes on New York City streets every year – on foot, on bicycles, or in vehicles.1 In 2014, Mayor de Blasio committed New York City government to “Vision Zero” – the principle that no serious injury or death is acceptable. The Department of Transportation has been redesigning streets and intersections to make them safer, and new automated enforcement cameras are working to slow drivers down. Fatalities decreased in the initial years after Vision Zero was announced, but this year fatalities are trending in the wrong direction.
The people who die on our streets are disproportionately seniors and young people.2 Fatalities are more likely to occur in lower-income neighborhoods, 3 where wide roads cut through residential areas and industrial areas with heavy trucks rumble close to where people live and shop.
Vision Zero is the right goal, but there is much more work that needs to be done to make it a reality. Cities in Europe and across the world have far fewer traffic fatalities per capita than New York City.4 The common denominator in those safer cities? A shift away from the primacy of the automobile and towards public streets and spaces oriented around walking, biking, and transit.
Projects that make streets safer frequently require repurposing a moving lane or parking spaces. We support these shifts that prioritize safety and human-scale mobility over a few minutes shaved off of vehicular travel times or the ability to park a private vehicle for free, indefinitely, in public space.
In order to make our streets and sidewalks safer, we propose that the city:
Expand Pedestrian Spaces, Build Safer Corners, and Shorten Crossing Distances
The Department of Transportation knows how to make streets and sidewalks safer, they just need to do much more of it, with more confidence, and in more places. We need to accelerate the Department’s street and intersection redesign program to expand pedestrian space, widen sidewalks, slow vehicle turns, create pedestrian refuge islands, and smooth traffic.
We also must ensure our sidewalks and intersections work for all ages and abilities – particularly seniors and people who use wheelchairs, who are blind or low-vision, or otherwise have limited mobility. This means we must make intersections safe and accessible – with pedestrian signals that alert people with limited vision when it is safe to cross, and ramps whose grade and design makes them usable and convenient for all.
We should also repurpose parking spaces at corners to enhance visibility (“daylight”), giving drivers more visibility as they make turns, and create space for quality-of-life enhancing uses like benches, trash baskets, bike parking, or rain gardens (patches of grass that absorb rainwater and reduce runoff and sewer overflows).
These safety improvements should be made equitably across all neighborhoods, with a focus on those places with the most fatalities and serious injuries.
Build a Citywide, All-Ages and Abilities, Protected Bike Lane Network
It should be possible for anyone to navigate the city safely and comfortably on the back of a bicycle. Bicycles take up much less space on the street than a car, emit no greenhouse gases, and can be a fun and pleasant way of getting around. The best way to encourage bicycling and protect people on bikes from fear, injury, and death is through protected bike lanes physically separated from traffic by dividers or a row of parked cars. These lanes have benefits for people driving and walking as well: a protected bike lane organizes traffic to keep bicycles and cars from mixing in uncomfortable or unpredictable ways. Safe, protected lanes on the street mean that people on bicycles will be less tempted to ride on sidewalks, and the narrowing of lanes and shortened crossing distance that comes from the addition of a bike lane smooths traffic and protect pedestrians from cars.
Since 2007, New York City has been building on-street protected bike lanes, slowly at first (averaging around five miles per year from 2007-2013), and accelerating to approximately 20 miles of protected bike lanes per year in 2017, 2018, and 2019.5 But too many cyclists are still dying on our streets, and a protected bike lane network is only as strong as its weakest link. In too many places a protected lane will disappear, leaving a person on a bike stranded in the midst of speeding traffic. The de Blasio administration has announced a new goal to increase the annual build-out of protected lanes to 30 miles per year, but we should go further.6
We should build at least 50 miles of protected bike lanes per year, with a particular focus on filling in gaps in the protected bike lane network to create a truly citywide, high-quality network of interconnected protected bike lanes. At this pace, we can achieve a full build-out of a citywide protected bike lane network years sooner than at DOT’s current pace, connecting more neighborhoods, and reducing dependency on private cars and for-hire vehicles. These lanes should be designed not just to be safe, but to attract many more people who are currently too nervous or afraid to use a bicycle for some of their daily trips.
We should also improve the design of these lanes, particularly at intersections, bus stops, and driveways where gaps in protection leaves people on bikes vulnerable to getting hit. We should eliminate “mixing zones” (where cars merge directly into a bike lane at intersections) and replace with Dutch-style “protected” intersections that eliminate vehicle/pedestrian/bicycle conflict.
We should also keep bike lanes clear. Too often bike lanes are blocked by parked cars, construction debris or piles of garbage. The Department of Transportation should have bike lane inspectors on bicycles that bike through the city each day, clearing lanes and writing tickets to people who create dangerous obstructions.
Bicycles should be available to anyone. We should expand bike shares citywide, expand the number of docks and bicycles in the existing service area so it’s easier to get a bike at peak times, and expand the availability of pedal-assist bikes that make it easier for people to take longer trips and go up hills or over bridges more comfortably.
We should also add more dedicated bike parking and simplify the process to remove derelict bicycles to free up space on existing bike racks and reduce visual clutter. Right now, it takes a proactive call to 311 and several visits by a sanitation worker before a derelict bike can be removed. City inspectors should perform proactive inspections of high-demand bike parking spots, and flag potential derelict or abandoned bicycles for fair and efficient removal.
A common element in almost every death on the streets: a speeding vehicle. Vehicles that are traveling at or below the citywide speed limit of 25mph are much less likely to get into a crash (because drivers are able to react to the unexpected more quickly and stop in time), and if a crash occurs, it is much less likely to cause death or serious injury. A person hit by a vehicle traveling just 30mph is twice as likely to die as someone hit by a car traveling at 25mph.7
How do we stop speeding? A combination of predictable, automated speed enforcement, and building a culture that treats intentional speeding with as much stigma as we now do drunk driving.
New York City is currently authorized by New York State to place speed cameras in 750 school zones, which are operable Monday through Friday from 6am to 10pm. Speed camera tickets are $50 and are only triggered if a driver is driving more than 10 miles per hour over the speed limit. Speed cameras work: where a speed camera is installed, speeding drops 60%, and 80% of drivers who get just one speeding ticket do not get a subsequent one.8 Right now, the conditions of the automated speed camera program are determined by the State Legislature in Albany. We should push to give New York City full control of its own speed camera program and expand the program so it can cover all dangerous roads in the city and stay on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We should also pursue legislation to increase the penalties on repeat offenders, including the ability to seize the license plate of the small fraction of drivers who continue to dangerously speed with impunity.
Clean and Pleasant World-Class Public Space
Our streets and sidewalks are our most-used public spaces. Streets compose 27 percent of the city’s land area. They should be cherished and enjoyed – whether walking or strolling, sitting at a café, resting on a bench, waiting for the bus, or shopping in Midtown Manhattan or on a neighborhood commercial street that is bustling with small businesses.
In order to make our streets and sidewalks public spaces that we can be proud of, we should:
Better Manage and Maintain Our Sidewalks and Public Realm
Too often, responsibility for how our sidewalks and public spaces feel is split across agencies and jurisdictions – the Department of Buildings can inspect some scaffolding to ensure it is safe and necessary, but they don’t have responsibility for the pile of garbage leaning against it. The Department of Sanitation may be able to help with the garbage, but they have no say with the utility company that has blocked a sidewalk with their equipment without creating a safe way to navigate around it.
We should assign general public space managers to geographies across the city. These would be general problem-solvers with connection to city agencies, charged with making public space pleasant, tidy, and relaxing. This would build upon the currently-existing SCOUT (Street Conditions Observation Unit) teams currently tasked with inspecting street conditions and calling in work orders to responsible agencies. These teams should be a single point of ultimate accountability reporting into the Mayor’s Office (or in partnership with Borough President Offices) responsible for the daily conditions and overall feel of our sidewalks and public spaces. They should be charged with coordinating the agency activities that dictate the feel and flow of public spaces, and empowered to do simple upkeep tasks that can make a big difference like tidying up litter or relocating cones and caution tape. They should also be encouraged to think holistically about how different agency plans and activities interact in the public realm: from the installation of security infrastructure to the location of street vendors to the staging of film and television shoots.
The City should also thoughtfully expand the use of sensors and monitoring technologies, akin to the technology being piloted in the “Array of Things” project in Chicago.9 As sensor technology becomes less expensive and more widely available, governments should be using it to generate public and transparent data on public space usage, air quality, noise, and other information to improve management and operations. Chicago’s program, as the one we propose would be, is truly public, and is not designed for monetization or commercialization in any way. Data should not be sold.
Transform Iconic Streets into Brand New World-Class Public Spaces
New York City has some of the most iconic streets in the world– from the crossroads of the world at Times Square, to the Flatiron building, to the now-iconic views of the Manhattan Bridge from DUMBO. But these streets are clogged with traffic, and sidewalks are crowded and overflowing with tourists and locals jostling for space. We can create world-class spaces for relaxation and enjoyment – new attractions for tourists and new spaces for New Yorkers to enjoy.
This means pedestrianizing or dramatically reducing vehicle access and parking along major streets and corridors – allowing just minimal commercial loading and emergency vehicle access or low-speed local access (no cut-through traffic). And while this may be a burden to the few in cars, it would free up an enormous amount of space for people on foot to sit or stroll without fear, hassle, or noisy traffic – a much better experience for the vast majority of people who arrive to these places by transit. The transformation of Times Square shows what is possible with thoughtful, human-centric transformation of streets into plazas, and it has been a resounding hit.
There are many places where these transformations are possible. For example, we could create world-class, people-first streets, districts, and plazas along Broadway from 14th Street to Columbus Circle, in the Financial District in Lower Manhattan, in Manhattan Chinatown, the Flatiron district, in Harlem, around Penn Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and Rockefeller Center. And that’s just Manhattan.
Streets don’t need to be pedestrianized year round. As a first measure, we could expand the popular car-free “Summer Streets” – in which major Manhattan avenues are closed to cars and opened to walking, biking, and public activities from 7am to 1pm for a few weekend days in July and August.10 We should expand this to every weekend, all day, all summer long.
Expand Neighborhood Plazas and Shared Streets
And these types of interventions should not be limited to the most iconic sites in Manhattan. We can create neighborhood-scale, pedestrian-priority streets and pedestrian plazas in all five boroughs. In Brooklyn alone, there are many areas that would be appropriate for these types of interventions, from Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, to DUMBO, Sunset Park, and Brooklyn Heights. Pedestrian-priority streets, sometimes grouped together and called “Super Blocks” in Barcelona11 and elsewhere, are low-speed streets where pedestrians and bicycles can use the full right of way, and vehicles must travel at very low (5mph) speeds. The local street grid is redesigned so cutting through is impossible, but local vehicular access is possible for residents and their guests, deliveries, and emergency vehicles.
Similarly to “Summer Streets,” we should expand car-free neighborhood events in all five boroughs, from block parties to business district-sponsored “weekend walks” to give more people and businesses the benefits of lively, car-free streets.
Remove Sidewalk Clutter and Create Tidier Construction Sites
Sidewalks are too often cluttered with empty newsboxes filled with advertising pamphlets, garbage, or nothing at all. We propose passing new laws giving the Department of Transportation the authority to seize empty and unused news boxes and consolidate those that are still active into more compact containers.
And our construction sites, from a new apartment building going up to a new water main going in, too often block sidewalks and bike lanes, and are haphazard and unsafe. We should work with the construction industry to create a “considerate constructor” program like the one in London.12 This program creates best practices for construction sites to make them visually appealing, as quiet as possible, and safe for pedestrians
Add More Sidewalk Cafes, Benches, and Street Trees
You know a lovely street when you see one: sidewalks are shaded with trees, people sit in street cafes, traffic is slow, and sidewalks are wide.
Sidewalk seating is a sign of neighborhood vitality and a boon to neighborhood cafes and restaurants. But the process for street café approval is too long and arduous, limiting the ability for small businesses, their customers, and people walking by to benefit from outdoor seating. We should streamline the street café process and loosen strict requirements to allow more restaurants and cafes to put out tables and chairs on the sidewalk.
We should also expand the “Street Seats” program, which transforms a parking space in front of a participating small business into a public seating area where customers can sit or people can walk by.
There should also be more places to sit along streets or at bus stops. We should add more benches in public spaces so people always have a place to sit whether waiting for a friend, waiting for the bus, or just waiting for inspiration.
We also should expand the number of street trees in neighborhoods that lack them, and expand the number of water-absorbent green “rain gardens” that reduce runoff into waterways. Street trees are not just nice to look at; they also create shade, lower the localized temperature in the summer, and reduce the risk of heatstroke and other heat-related illnesses.
End Piles of Garbage on the Sidewalk
New York City is notorious for the amount of garbage that is piled on our sidewalks.
Currently, residential garbage is handled by the city’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY), while commercial garbage is handled by a private market of waste haulers regulated by the City’s Business Integrity Commission. A bill currently being debated by the City Council would shift commercial waste to a zoned franchise system overseen by the Department of Sanitation. Under this proposal, a smaller number of companies would be given the exclusive right to pickup commercial waste in established zones throughout the city, reducing the total number of commercial waste trucks on the road, and improving the efficiency of pickup operations. This is a good bill, and it would bring much-needed reform to this troubled industry.
No matter what happens with the City Council bill, there is too long of a gap between when garbage is set out and when it is picked up. Trash is set out on the sidewalks because the Manhattan street grid was planned without service alleys, and there isn’t enough dedicated space devoted to sensible garbage storage in all five boroughs. That’s why we have piles of garbage on the sidewalk. And it’s even worse in the winter, when the Department of Sanitation uses garbage trucks to clear snow from the roads, because snowy piles of trash can accumulate for days before the backlog can be collected and cleared.
We need major reform. New York City should develop and implement a comprehensive plan to get garbage off the sidewalks. This plan should include:
- Devoting space currently used for parked cars to garbage storage. A few parking spaces on every problematic block should be repurposed for a shared dumpster, a refuse container for DSNY, or a commercial hauler pickup.
- More litter baskets and expanded pickup times. The Department of Sanitation should increase the number of baskets and increase pickup frequency - which can vary from once a day to several times per day depending on the busyness of the location - in order to limit the accumulation of garbage in high traffic locations.
- More rigorous enforcement of businesses or landlords who put their garbage out too early or for too long. Businesses and landlords should not use the sidewalk as a place to store garbage. If a storage container is not available, businesses should place their garbage out for timely pickup, and commercial waste haulers should be held accountable - through escalating fines and a threat of revocation of operating license - for letting garbage sit on the sidewalk for too long.
- Incorporating solid waste management into building design. The Department of Sanitation should develop new requirements that new buildings have a plan for trash pickup, and large scale development should be required to incorporate best-practice waste management into building design - like a storage space for a dumpster or waste container that is off the sidewalk and accessible to a waste truck doing a pickup, or an internal area where waste can be sorted, stored, and easily transferred to the street - so that waste spends less time on the sidewalks or streets.
Reform Street Parking
A huge amount of public space in New York City is devoted to the storage of private vehicles. According to best estimates,13 there are nearly 3 million street parking spots, and more than 2.3 million additional private parking spots. The majority of New Yorkers do not own cars, and the vast majority do not use their cars for commuting.14 If demand for spaces is reduced and managed through sensible meter rates, and a large portion of them could be repurposed to uses besides private vehicle storage.
The City should increase on-street meter rates to more closely match the rate of off-street garages, and increase these rates each year with inflation. The City should also add meters in places where indefinite street parking is now available for free. Reforming meter rates would encourage more frequent turnover in commercial areas, shift delivery times to the overnight hours where there is less of an impact on traffic, and reduce the unnecessary use of automobiles.
More sensible meter rates would mean higher turnover and reduced overall demand for parking - meaning the city could repurpose spaces into other public uses described elsewhere in this plan: street safety upgrades, waste storage, trees and gardens, bike racks, or places to sit.
Accountability and Integrity in Public Spaces
In New York City, some of the most anti-social parking behavior and public space abuse is perpetrated by public workers or those posing as them. Official vehicles and private vehicles with official or fraudulent parking placards clutter streets and sidewalks around the city. They create danger by blocking crosswalks, bus stops, bike lanes, and fire hydrants. They create traffic backups by blocking loading zones that are designed to give delivery trucks a place to unload, which then forces delivery trucks to double park. These behaviors sully public space and erode public faith and trust in government.
More subtly, the widespread provision of public vehicles to elected officials and government workers disconnects these public servants from the lived experience of the millions of New Yorkers who don’t have cars and rely on subways and buses to get around.
We must end unnecessary preferential driving privileges for public officials including official vehicles, commuter cars, and parking placards. We should shift away from providing city vehicles or parking placards for public workers, with very narrow exceptions only for those who require a specialized vehicle to perform their duties - like patrol cars or inspection vehicles. Officials who use a vehicle merely for transportation should rely on public transportation or, if necessary, a reimbursed for-hire vehicle, rather than a public car. Parking placards should be entirely eliminated, with particular treatment of vehicles managed through a license plate database accessible only to enforcement officials, rather than anything placed on a dashboard or windshield. A culture of compliance should be cultivated at the relevant enforcement agencies so “deference” in parking violations is not given to vehicles perceived to be on official business or in positions of authority.
Until these rules change, we call on elected officials and their staff members to turn down an official parking placard or commuter car, and use either their own vehicles, following the same parking rules as everyone else, or rely on public transit and for-hire vehicles to perform their duties.
We should have zero tolerance for abuse of public vehicles in public spaces, including fraudulent parking placards, the defacing of license plates to evade automated speed enforcement, and illegal parking in bike lanes, bus lanes, bus stops, or on sidewalks. A specialized unit at the Department of Investigation should be established to oversee the misuse of public vehicles, seize vehicles, and penalize scofflaw repeat offenders.
Lively and Delightful Parks, Pools, Playgrounds, and Beaches
Public parks, playgrounds, pools, and beaches are our shared backyards. They are places for quiet respite, to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, and watch the seasons change - places where kids can play and families can picnic.15 And yet, almost one in five New Yorkers do not live within walking distance of a park. Marquee parks in richer neighborhoods are supported with conservancies that channel philanthropic donations to operations, maintenance, programming, and upgrades. Parks in poorer neighborhoods rely entirely on public funds and suffer from delayed maintenance, chronic disinvestment, and neglect.
In order to make our parks and recreational facilities delightful, equitable and fair, we should:
Invest More Money and Reform Procedures for Parks Maintenance and Upgrades
Our city’s parks are not getting the care and attention they deserve.
As a recent analysis from the Center for an Urban Future highlighted, in 2017, the Parks Department was able to fund just 15% of its capital needs and employed only 150 gardeners for nearly 200,000 acres of parkland.16 That’s one gardener per 133 acres. By comparison, San Francisco’s parks department has a ratio of one gardener for every 20 acres. New York City parks that benefit from conservancies, like Central Park and the Highline, have dozens of privately funded, dedicated maintenance and operations workers focused on sprucing up and maintaining these spaces. This means our neighborhoods most crying out for quality public space have parks with overgrown weeds, poor drainage, closed or filthy restrooms, and crumbling walls and embankments. The City Council has recently increased the Parks Department’s headcount and dedicated more resources for maintenance, but we should go further.
The city should increase the citywide capital funding available to upgrade the quality of our neediest parks. In addition, we should increase the number of people available to perform daily maintenance and upgrades in parks throughout the city. This increase in capital funds should be made by expanding the budget for the “Neighborhood Parks Initiative” – a de Blasio administration initiative that prioritizes repair and upgrade projects in neighborhood parks that had not received major capital upgrades in decades. We should also expand the “Parks Without Borders” program to eliminate or replace unsightly chain-link fences that make parks unwelcoming, improve entrances to parks, and better connect parks onto streets and sidewalks to create a cohesive and pleasant pedestrian experience.
But construction procedures and project selection process could be improved as well. Too often, the rules and regulations that govern public agency capital construction extend the timelines and increase the budgets of what ought to be simple projects. Working closely with organized labor and the contracting community, the city should reform the capital construction process to cut red tape and get projects done more quickly and efficiently. This means allowing best-practice construction methods like “design-build” and “construction manager at risk” (which gives a construction manager ultimate accountability for price and timeline, but more flexibility and discretion) – that reduce the number of distinct contracts that are needed to perform work.
The point would not be to reduce the overall amount of money and resources devoted to parks (in fact, we should devote more) but to help the money we invest go further and faster so we can do more for New Yorkers who need it.
In addition, investment in parks should be guided as much as possible by a comprehensive Parks Department needs assessment process, rather than one-off requests by individual members of the City Council or State Legislature. We should work with the Parks Department directly to understand the deep needs of the parks in our districts, even if they are unglamorous but critical (like adequate drainage or retaining walls), and we should support projects that make parks and public spaces viable for enjoyment in the long-term.
Create New Parks and Public Places for Recreation and Enjoyment
We should not just improve the maintenance of our existing parks, but also create new parks and places for public use and enjoyment across the city. This should be done by two main methods: (1) making currently-existing public spaces more accessible for recreation and enjoyment, and (2) acquiring new land to transform it into playground and park space.
Expand Use of Schoolyards, Playgrounds, and Community Gardens - Many schoolyards, school playgrounds, and community gardens are periodically publicly accessible, but get locked up for hours at peak periods of potential public use - over the weekend, in the evening, and over the summer. We should expand the Parks Department partnership with the Department of Education to make school playgrounds into public parks when school is not in session and add additional maintenance and volunteer capacity for community gardens to make them available for public enjoyment even when members or volunteers are not available.
Better Use “Under the Elevated” - We should also make better use of the more than 70 million square feet - 300 miles of linear space - underneath elevated highways, bridges, and train tracks. These blighting public spaces currently divide neighborhoods and are often lined with chain link fences and inhabited by parking spaces or construction equipment. In partnership with the Design Trust for Public Space, the City has developed a set of interventions – benches, lights, plantings, and playgrounds – that can make these spaces pleasant and appealing instead of foreboding and unwelcoming.17 While not substitutes for true park space, these spaces wind through many neighborhoods with too little greenspace and should be put to better use.
New Anchor Parks and Neighborhood Gems – Even as we invest to improve the quality of our parks, the city should identify acquisition opportunities across the five boroughs, places where vacant lots or underutilized spaces could be purchased by the city and transformed into high-quality new parks and recreational spaces. These new parks could be made in partnership with new development of homes or commercial space, like the new Domino Park on the Williamsburg waterfront, or in partnership with community-led planning efforts like the “Queensway” proposal to transform a former rail-bed into a Highline-like linear park.
Make More Places to Grab a Snack or Drink
In the parks that do exist, there is often too few places to grab a drink or bite to eat. This is a missed opportunity. Thoughtful concessions -- from vending machines to snack bars and food stands to park-side restaurants and neighborhood pubs -- can provide a business opportunity for local community-based entrepreneurs and a source of revenue that can be dedicated to public space maintenance and upgrades.
Revenues from concessions in New York City’s parks have been flat over the last several years, and have decreased by more than 20% from 2007.18 With sustained focus and creativity, we can reverse this slide, grow new revenues that can be dedicated to public spaces, and expand opportunities for local entrepreneurs while maintaining the peacefulness and relaxing feel of our public spaces.
Create Sensible Pool Rules
Our City’s 53 public outdoor pools are enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers every summer. Free publicly accessible pools are a triumph of equity and create an opportunity to cool off and have fun that might otherwise be limited to wealthier people with access to a swim club or a private pool of their own.
But today, enjoyment of our pools is hampered by restrictive rules and limited hours. All pool-goers must bring their own padlocks to use a locker, only white t-shirts may be worn over swim suits, no newspapers are allowed on the decks, and our pools are only open from 11am to 7pm with a hour-long 3pm closure for cleaning and staff lunch. While some of these rules and hours may make sense, they are overdue for a refresh. The City should look abroad for best practices in public pool management and adjust rules and procedures accordingly, which will attract more people to the pools, and make everyone feel safe and welcome.
In addition, the City’s “Cool Pools” program, which adds new coats of paint, more shade umbrellas, and a dash of design and pizzazz to pools across the city, should be expanded to every pool citywide.
World-Class Libraries, Museums, and Cultural Institutions
New York City is the cultural capital of the United States, and has long been a beacon for artists, scholars, poets and dreamers from around the world. Our city should be attracting artists from around the world, and inspiring and cultivating our young people to become the great artists and cultural leaders of tomorrow. New Yorkers of all ages, in every neighborhood should feel connected to all that our city has to offer, from our art museums, to our theaters, and to our libraries. And burgeoning arts and cultural organizations from every community should be supported and cultivated with funds and attention.
In order to put world-class culture at the fingertips of every New Yorker, we should:
Expand the Department of Cultural Affairs
The City’s Department of Cultural Affairs is the United States’ largest cultural funding organization in the United States, with more than $177 million dollars devoted to cultural institutions throughout the five boroughs.19 They give grants to more than 900 nonprofit organizations, from organizations cultivating visual arts, music and dance, to literary organizations, zoos, and botanical gardens.
They also oversee the city’s relationship with the 33 members of the “Cultural Institutions Group” – the city’s anchor cultural organizations, including the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carnegie Hall, PS1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (“BAM”), the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, The Studio Museum in Harlem, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden and El Museo del Barrio. These institutions operate in city-owned facilities and receive public operating support and energy subsidies to maintain their collections and provide low-cost, publicly accessible programming.
We should expand the budget for the Department of Cultural Affairs so they can do even more. We should add additional institutions to the cultural institutions group (CIG), and expand support to arts councils in each borough. These councils would use these additional grant-making resources to provide more support, space, and programming for aspiring artists and curious New Yorkers in every neighborhood, particularly in immigrant communities and communities of color.
Longer Library Hours for Working Families
The City’s libraries are critical pieces of social infrastructure. They universalize access to information and entertainment: a place where newly-arrived immigrants can learn English and start on the road to citizenship or adult learners can get their GED. They are a place for community meetings - places where New Yorkers can come together to plan, organize, and dream. They’re a high quality indoor public space for quiet contemplation.
But right now, libraries aren’t open seven days/week, or even all weekend long. Many libraries close on Sunday, and are closed during the week by the time many New Yorkers get off work.20 We should keep libraries open on Sunday and later in the evenings to make libraries more accessible to busy New York families.
New Funding for Public Space Management, Improvements, and Quality of Life
The proposals in this plan will take additional resources to make a reality. While we should be making every effort to improve the efficiency of delivery of services to lower costs, we should also recognize that public investments in quality of life are worth it. New York City is the wealthiest city in the wealthiest country in the history of the human species. We should have high quality, universally shared public spaces and public goods that can make us all proud, and these investments are worthy to be funded out of the city’s general tax revenue.
Better project delivery across the capital plan would free up resources to be reinvested in these priorities, and some reallocations of existing funds are appropriate. For example, the city spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on road resurfacing and pothole response - an important task, but one whose primary beneficiary is owners and drivers of vehicles. A fraction of this money could be reallocated for public space maintenance and improvements that would benefit every New Yorker, not just those who use a car to get around.
However, there are many new sources of revenue that could be tapped and dedicated to improved maintenance of public space, expanded public services, and invested in higher quality of life, many of which achieve policy objectives independently of how the revenue is used. For example:
- Higher parking meter rates would encourage turnover in commercial strips, discourage unnecessary car use for certain trips, and free up space at the curb.
- Additional concession revenues from food, beverages, and other sales in parks and public spaces give small entrepreneurs new opportunities and gives parkgoers more options and convenience.
- Speed camera and other automated enforcement tickets discourage dangerous driving. The ideal amount of revenue generated from speed cameras, of course, is $0 (because drivers will stop speeding). In the interim, however, there is a satisfying appropriateness to reinvesting money from dangerous drivers into measures that will improve the safety of our streets and the quality of our lives.
Every New Yorker deserves safe and enjoyable places to gather, stroll, relax, study, and be inspired. With focus and investment, New York City live up to its promise as a model of humane, urban living. We can make our streets safe for all - ending the fear and anxiety that comes from just trying to get around. We can transform our sidewalks into welcoming public space. We can support lively and delightful parks, pools, and beaches for every New Yorker to enjoy. And we can make arts, music, and culture even more accessible to New Yorkers from every walk of life.
We can be a livable city for all.
1. City of New York, “Vision Zero Year 5 Report” https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/visionzero/downloads/pdf/vision-zero-year-5-report.pdf
2. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, “Pedestrian Fatalities in New York City” https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/doh/downloads/pdf/epi/databrief86.pdf
3. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, “Pedestrian Fatalities in New York City” https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/doh/downloads/pdf/epi/databrief86.pdf
5. New York City Department of Transportation, “Green Wave: A Plan for New York City Cycling” https://www1.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/bike-safety-plan.pdf
6. New York City Department of Transportation, “Green Wave: A Plan for New York City Cycling” https://www1.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/bike-safety-plan.pdf
7. AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, as reported in Pro Publica, “Unsafe at Many Speeds” https://www.propublica.org/article/unsafe-at-many-speeds?utm_campaign=sprout&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter&utm_content=1464207000
8. New York City Department of Transportation, “Automated Speed Enfrocement Camera Report 2014-2016” http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/speed-camera-report-june2017.pdf
10. New York City Department of Transportation, “Summer Streets” https://www1.nyc.gov/html/dot/summerstreets/html/home/home.shtml
11. Vox.com, “Barcelona’s radical plan to take back streets from cars” https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2019/4/9/18300797/barcelona-spain-superblocks-urban-plan
12. Considerate Constructor Program https://www.ccscheme.org.uk/ccs-ltd/what-is-the-ccs2
13. StreetsblogNYC, “To Break the Car Culture, Reduce the Number of Parking Spots” https://nyc.streetsblog.org/2019/08/21/op-ed-to-break-the-car-culture-reduce-the-number-of-parking-spots
14. NYCDOT “2019 Mobility Report” http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/mobility-report-2019-print.pdf
15. OneNYC 2050: Thriving Neighborhoods http://1w3f31pzvdm485dou3dppkcq.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/OneNYC-2050-Thriving-Neighborhoods.pdf
19. New York City Department of Cultural Affairs – CreateNYC – A Cultural Plan for All New Yorkers https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/dcla/downloads/pdf/cultureplan/createnyc-finalplan.pdf