A New York Plaza for Each One of Us

NYC Plaza Program 03
Image by New York City DOT

I drove into New York City this morning for the first time in months. I noticed brand new — and well though-out — bicycle lanes while traveling south on 7th Avenue. New concrete curbing build alongside the lanes keep the car and cyclist separated. There are turning bays at each intersection. New traffic light address the two groups individually.

This is all part of the new 200-Mile Bicycle Network from the New York City Department of Transportation:

In June 2009, the NYC Department of Transportation completed the City’s ambitious goal of building 200 bike-lane miles in all five boroughs in just three years, nearly doubling the citywide on-street bike network while reshaping the city’s streets to make them safer for everyone who uses them.

NCY Plaza Program 02
Image by New York City DOT

The Department has also started an ambitious Public Plaza Program in partnership with local not-for-profit organizations:

The NYC Plaza Program will re-invent New York City’s public realm. In New York City, the public right of way comprises 64 square miles of land-that is enough space to fit about 50 Central Parks. The Program will re-claim streets at appropriate locations to make new plazas. Sites will be selected based on the following criteria: Open Space, Community Initiative, Site Context, Organizational & Maintenance Capacity, and Income Eligibility. Eligible not-for-profit organizations can propose new plaza sites for their neighborhoods through a competitive application process. The City will prioritize sites that are in neighborhoods that lack open space, and will look to partner with community groups that commit to operate, maintain, and manage these spaces so they are vibrant pedestrian plazas.

The Guidelines for partnering with the NYC DOT are here. Future plaza development proposals will be accepted, starting in Spring 2010.

Benjamin R. Barber weighs in. In an Op-Ed titled The Art of Public Space published in The Nation, he writes:

The pedestrian piazzas being carved out from vehicular thruways at Times Square and Herald Square in New York City are testimony to the critical need for public space in our cluttered mega-cities. But public space is not merely the passive residue of a decision to ban cars or a tacit invitation to the public to step into the street. It must be actively created and self-consciously sustained against the grain of an architecture built as much for machines as people, more for commercial than common use.

NYC Plaza Program 04
Image by New York City DOT

Mr. Barber advocates a greater role for the artist in the design and creation of these spaces and more public investment:

To succeed, public space will demand greater public investment and better understanding of the role artists and the arts play in putting such investment to imaginative uses.

These notions yield two mandates. First, they call for greater public investment in public space and in the arts that help shape such spaces. And second, they call for greater understanding of the role artists and the arts play in putting public investment to imaginative uses.

Continue reading The Art of Public Space…

NYC Plaza Program 01
Image by New York City DOT

I remember a professor from one of my Urban Planning classes talking about an urban plaza partly designed by its users. The pedestrian patterns between the different buildings could not be anticipated, so the architects decided to plant a lawn instead of designing walkways etc…

A year later the designers came back to the site. The natural pathways, used by the pedestrians to get from one side of the plaza to the other during the preceding four seasons, were now apparent in the worn grass. The new walkways were installed accordingly. Everybody was happy.

This example of user-inclusive approach to design stayed with me all of these years. It always struck me as a fine example of the primary responsibility of the designer: satisfying the needs and furthering the well-being of the space-user.

The case related by my professor relies on a passive, even organic approach to urban space design. The approach underway in New York City, with its ambitious scope, seeks to involve the community — the end-users of the public spaces — on a larger scale but in a similar determinative fashion.

This ever-evolving city will never be the same as a result of this initiative. And New Yorkers have a great opportunity to leave their footprints in the public spaces of their city for future generations to enjoy.

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