Reclaiming Space in the Urban Environment

As a lifelong New Yorker, I constantly say that the city's parks and green spaces are our backyards. 

This is primarily because I grew up in a house with a 50 sf patch of dirt as a front yard, and a slightly larger patch of concrete as a back yard. By the time I was a senior in high school, our football field gave way to multiple high rise apartment buildings. As a kid growing up in New York, I had to make do with what open spaces were around my neighborhood. A handicap ramp outside the local elementary school was used to practice jumps on bicycles or skateboards, the one-way street was a football field, that is until the next car drove past. A couple of garbage cans on a parking lot became a soccer pitch. 

Needless to say, green spaces in New York City are a luxury.

Residents of upper Manhattan and brownstone Brooklyn are fortunate to be near the Frederik Law Olmsted designed Central Park and Prospect Park. Both are urban oases which offer some respite from the otherwise harsh concrete jungle. Unless you live near these parks, you'd be hard pressed to utilize them on a daily basis.

That's why I'm a big proponent of the recent movement in New York City to take underutilized spaces as part of the Public Plaza Program and repurpose them as either temporary or permanent parks, seating areas and gardens. Per the NYC Dept. of Transportation, "Plazas enhance local economic vitality, pedestrian mobility, access to public transit, and safety for all street users." 

While the new pedestrian plazas in Times Square and Heralds Square may be the largest and most well-known instances, I'd like to highlight a few of my personal favorites along with the project "before and after" visuals.

Forsyth Street Plaza - This is located at the base of the Manhattan side of the Manhattan Bridge. Previously a foreboding street choked with pollution from the bridge traffic overhead, it will be redesigned to be a calmer, more open plaza with plantings and greenery. I've hurriedly walked down the old street numerous times to get to stores and businesses in Chinatown that have been bifurcated by the bridge. The new street scape allows for a more enjoyable walk. Overall, this project will reclaim approximately 10,000 sf for the community. 

Coenties Slip - This plaza is one of the closest plazas to Spacesmith's offices, so my colleagues and I have found ourselves using it quite often in the summer. A farmer's market is also held here weekly during the warmer months. While the Financial District is notorious for its rushed and harried pace, it is refreshing to find an open area to step back from the hustle and bustle of downtown Manhattan. 

Manhattan Bridge Archway – On the Brooklyn side of the Manhattan Bridge, this archway was previously closed off by the DOT to store materials and supplies. It was also notoriously dividing the DUMBO neighborhood into two neighborhoods. With the archway restored and opened, it is now a public amenity, connecting the community on both sides of the bridge.

Pearl Street Plaza - I stumbled upon this plaza a year or two ago during an arts walk in DUMBO. The beauty of these pedestrian plazas is that you walk or drive these streets and then seemingly overnight, it is transformed into a welcoming oasis in the middle of the neighborhood. The Pearl Street plaza was a former parking lot that now has public seating and pop up art installations. 

What I like most about the pedestrian plaza movement is that this is, in a way, formalizing what I and many others have done for years. This is identifying an opportunity to convert an underutilized street, or traffic median, or patch of dirt, and through good design, planning and civic engagement, repurposing it for use by the community. 

Additionally, this is all driven at the local level, where neighborhood groups, business improvement districts, and residents submit a request to the city and the DOT, to convert an underused part of their neighborhood into a new plaza. This process allows for direct input from the community, and is a great way for you to get involved in how your neighborhood is designed and utilized. More information can be found here: 

Will Wong, Associate

Will WongHelen Zouvelekis