Crain’s New York: Change the Streets & Change the City

My op-ed in Crain’s New York is in the magazine this week and has been online for more than a week. The online version is longer than the print version but is behind a paywall. You can buy access to both the magazine and the online articles for 8 weeks for $7. The print version of the op-ed is in a PDF (scroll down), and the full text is here:

The protest marches on our city streets demand our attention. But with Phase 1 of the Coronavirus Reopening starting today, we still need to think about how to use those public spaces to survive the fallout from the most widespread health crisis of our time. If we don’t pay attention now, it may be too late.

Even before the reopening, there were twice as many people driving into Manhattan as we saw at the lowest point in April. But when asked how we can prevent cars from coming back in higher numbers than ever in the next few weeks, Mayor de Blasio said New Yorkers will have to “improvise” how they get to work.

“I really want to push back on the notion that we can solve everything all the time,” de Blasio said.

That’s not good enough. Here’s a three-part plan for Open Streets that can help reopen and renew New York City.

A Network of Open Streets

“Open Streets” are streets temporarily opened for use by children, people walking or exercising, and cyclists. The New York City Department of Transportation has had an Open Streets program since TKTK, temporarily closing streets like Park Avenue in Manhattan once or twice a year.

We need to act quickly, before out-of-town drivers reclaim city streets for their cars. Other American cities are already widening sidewalks and opening streets to restaurants, while we can’t even agree on what to talk about. We need what Tactical Urbanists call “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” strategies for opening our streets in new ways before a surge of drivers makes that impossible.

We need a network of Open Streets people can use to hike and bike around the city, and we need that network to connect to streets with retail businesses, so that stores and restaurants can reopen successfully. The Open Streets we have now are scattered here and there, in isolation, and they don’t support the needs of stores and restaurants.

Cities like Portland, Oregon have already opened city-wide networks that connect to shopping streets. Other cities like Philadelphia are moving as fast as they can to open similar networks. Philadelphia calls the networked streets, “Recovery Streets.”

A Plan to Help Stores

We can’t mire the recovery process in regulations and bureaucracy. An example of what we don’t want now are the burdensome New York procedures for building a “parklet” in a parking space. Parklets are structures, usually made of wood, that extend the sidewalk into former parking spaces. They have places to sit, so that coffee shop customers, for example, can drink their coffee outside.

That’s all good, but from the day a business applies to the city for a parklet to the day a parklet opens typically takes seven months. Thankfully, the New York City DOT last week announced a streamlined, self-certifying process for restaurants to put tables and chairs out on the street, but it needs better coordination with an Open Streets plan. New York City stores need just as much help as restaurants, now.

With Phase 1, an increased number of stores can open for pickup. To help them, we need a streamlined process for stores on Open Streets to be able to put display tables outside, where they can show their most popular wares. Store employees could also bring requested items from inside the store to the tables. Awnings or temporary structures would keep the sun and rain off the tables. Summer weather is here, and now is the perfect time to start. Time is money, and after three months, our local businesses and entrepreneurs feel like they’re running out of time.

If we allow restaurants to have widely-spaced dining tables and stores to have display tables, social distancing will push pedestrians out into the streets, which need to be Open Streets. Any cars or delivery trucks on the street will have to share the space with people. European experience shows, perhaps counterintuitively, that these “shared space” streets are much safer for everyone than the standard New York street, where the center is reserved for moving cars, and pedestrians are kicked to the side of the road.

Renew New York

Almost three months have passed since Governor Cuomo closed non-essential businesses in New York State. If we don’t help them immediately, many New York businesses will not come back. More than 850,000 New Yorkers are out of work. Restaurant and store owners employees need to go back to work if they are going to survive.

Even before the lockdown order, many storefronts in New York City and across the state were empty. Mayor de Blasio and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer have proposed a tax on vacant storefronts to counter the problem. A plan similar to the successful Renew Australia program could help too. This would require a city agency to coordinate the project, but the result would be worth the effort.

The idea is that the agency helps to fill empty stores with new businesses by providing free space for three months. To get the space for free, the tenant moving in signs a contract to either begin paying rent after three months or to move out. In Australia, many of the spaces have gone to makers and artists who have successfully incubated new businesses.

Change the Streets and Change the City

Unless we act quickly, the most likely scenario for the future of New York is that cars will come back in higher numbers than before, local businesses will fail, storefronts will remain empty, and hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers will be unemployed.

We can do better. In the last few months, we’ve learned that simply driving less made the air in the city better than any of us can remember. One opportunity before us is to combine telecommuting and time in the office to reduce the number of cars on the road and crowds on the subway and buses. For the health of New Yorkers and the planet, we don’t want to go back to the old status quo.

Before the pandemic, New Yorkers trusted restaurants to serve them healthy food. As long as they follow the recommendations of epidemiologists (which we can require), we can trust them to open safely.

This will be good for business and good for city life. We will put people back on the streets. Jane Jacobs taught us years ago that’s how to make a safe city, with public space where people want to hang out. Most of our public space is in our streets, and we’ve been wasting it on cars, when most of us don’t own cars.

Americans are marching in the streets to improve the future. Changing how we use those streets in everyday life will also change how we live. Change the streets and change the city.

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About John Massengale

Architect, Urbanist, Author, Educator
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