NYC’s Plaza Program, An Open Space Model for L.A.?

(We’re kicking off a new series where transportation professionals write about some of the best practices in their city and how they could work in L.A.  Who better to start with than our favorite Occidental College Board Member? The NYC Plaza Program is a popular topic on our sister-site in New York.  – DN)

New York is the city that never seats.

With more than eight million residents and millions more commuters and visitors sharing just over 300 square miles, New Yorkers have long tried to squeeze everything they can out of every day and every inch of the city, but there’s just not enough places to sit and enjoy it all.

Plans for a plaza at Fulton Street and Marcy Avenue, in the first phase of the plaza program. Image: NYC DOT

While New York’s landmark buildings, parks and cultural institutions get a lot of attention, there’s less consideration given to the city’s most important real estate: the streets and sidewalks themselves, which make up 80 percent of the city’s public space.

With another one million people expected to move to New York over the next 20 years, every inch of this shared space will have to count. Our streets must be designed to be safer for everyone and, critically, they must be designed to invite people to walk outside and linger—to stop and take in everything the city has to offer.

Whenever we lay down traffic cones for a plaza project in New York, and long before the benches are installed, pedestrians immediately move in and take up the most New York of rituals: They sit down, even right on the street.
Los Angeles has 6,500 miles of streets—just as many miles as New York, and just as many opportunities to think about how its streets are being used. But just as most Angelinos aren’t lucky enough to live walking distance of Venice Beach, not everyone in New York is lucky enough to live near Central Park.

Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC blueprint for a more sustainable New York called for ensuring that all New Yorkers live within a 10-minute walk of quality open space.

To reach that goal, we created the NYC Plaza Program, partnering with communities to transform underused slices of streets and sidewalks into welcoming, vibrant neighborhood plazas.

DOT accepts applications for plazas to be used as greenmarkets, performance spaces, or as a place simply to sit, relax and meet neighbors. The applications come from interested community organizations that demonstrate broad support in the neighborhood and which can prove they can fund, clean and maintain the space once it’s open.

These plans can create landscaped plazas where today there is a zebra-striped sidewalk lane; a place to enjoy a cup of coffee in what is an unneeded turn lane; or a spot to read a book in the crook of a century-old street where a couple hundred square feet are no longer needed to move traffic.

Reclaiming public spaces has already proven a huge success here, when Broadway at Times and Herald squares were converted to pedestrian plazas. In one fell swoop, this project improved safety, traffic flow and air quality while providing a welcoming space for visitors, residents and workers to sit and enjoy the Crossroads of the World. Business is also booming, with major new retailers flocking to Times Square opening and with retail rents there outpacing the rest of the city, all amid the economic downturn.

Ensuring we get the most out of our streets in the future means looking at how we’re designing them today. Los Angeles is taking a significant step in that direction with the development of the Model Streets Manual, establishing guidelines for how streets can be designed for everyone who uses them.

Not every plaza can bring every benefit in every case. But each plaza can help create a more community in our neighborhoods by giving residents a place worth walking to—and a place to sit and enjoy it.