When walking down a New York City street, the average person doesn’t experience public space in terms of jurisdiction, nor do they care whether this piece is managed by the Department of Transportation or that this other part is overseen by the Parks Department, and that piece over there is within the purview of the Department of Environmental Protection. But, unfortunately, that is the approach historically taken when planning and building the public realm, and it can lead to a disjointed series of public spaces that create obstacles for public use.
The public realm is a common resource that New Yorkers share every day: they are the spaces where people, especially New Yorkers, play together, talk together, wave hello and simply share the sidewalk. Well-designed, attractive and welcoming public spaces can become a positive center of a community’s life. The more attractive, inviting and accessible our public spaces are, the more they will be used and the more opportunities there will be to be part of the community. Cities are layers of history, and parks in New York City were designed over centuries, so it’s no surprise that parks reflect different notions about what public space means. Some of them were designed not to integrate with the surrounding community but, instead, to be sealed off from them through tall fences, big walls or lack of visual and physical connections. It’s even possible to walk by a park without realizing that it is there. In a city like New York, where open space is at a premium, we cannot afford to overlook any park or public space.
Planning a Seamless System
In New York City, the public realm makes up about 40 percent of the land area: with 14 percent to parks and 26 percent to streets, sidewalks and other public spaces. Yet, this precious resource that makes places livable is not planned or managed as a seamless system.
That’s why, in 2016, NYC Parks launched Parks Without Borders, an initiative that addresses inconsistent park design and unifies the public realm. Our goal is to promote freedom of movement, and to make all parts of public space as seamless as possible in order to make the most out of this limited but important resource. To do this, we are focusing on redesigning parts of parks that interact directly with the surrounding neighborhood: entrances, edges and park-adjacent spaces. The program was first announced as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s comprehensive plan for the city, OneNYC, through which the mayor allocated $50 million. Now, we are implementing Parks Without Borders in two ways: creating eight transformative projects, selected with input from New Yorkers, and incorporating the design philosophy into our standard design process.
Parks Without Borders is innovative in both its design philosophy and its approach to public outreach. For the first time, we started a series of capital projects by directly asking people where they thought this design approach would do the most good. We built an online, interactive map that allowed people to nominate specific parks and to also identify specific recommendations for that park by using digital icons. As not everyone has the same access to, or comfort with, online engagement, we also coupled the online outreach with in-person events, specifically targeting communities with low levels of in-home high-speed broadband access.
The public outreach resulted in more than 6,100 nominations for projects that covered almost a third of all city parks. Parks in every part of the city were represented. The website comments were anonymous, but the letters and emails we received, and the diversity of attendees at our in-person events, made it clear that New Yorkers of all walks of life care about their parks and are interested in improving them through Parks Without Borders. We heard from kids, community leaders, local business owners, park advocates and landscape architects, among many others — proof positive that Parks Without Borders had struck a chord.
We selected the eight showcase projects based on three criteria: community support, park access and physical conditions and context. We identified the most nominated parks in each borough and then reviewed them for the opportunity to improve park access and physical conditions and context. As this is primarily a design approach, it relies on certain physical conditions to succeed. We wanted to make sure we selected projects that would work and would transform park spaces for their communities.
Based on those three factors, we selected the follow projects: Seward Park and Jackie Robinson Park in Manhattan; Van Cortlandt Park and Hugh J. Grant Circle/Virginia Park in the Bronx; Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens; Fort Greene Park and Prospect Park in Brooklyn; and Faber Park in Staten Island. These projects represent the wide range of potential improvements Parks Without Borders can offer. For example, at Van Cortlandt Park, one of the Bronx’s flagship parks, we are reimagining a major entrance to create a grand entrance that welcomes people when they arrive. We will also be creating a new flexible plaza space in place of underused tennis courts. At Seward Park in Manhattan, we’re redesigning a part of the park that’s next door to a library. Today, it is an empty paved area, but with the new design, it will be a space park goers and library users can both use and enjoy.
Design for these projects is well underway. In fall 2016, to kick off design we held robust and well-attended community input meetings for each of these eight projects and continue the dialogue with the community about Parks Without Borders. Design on the eight showcase projects will wrap up by the end of 2017, and we look forward to unveiling these reimagined spaces to the public by early 2020.
Beyond the eight showcase projects, we’re also incorporating Parks Without Borders design principles into existing capital projects when possible. While this approach won’t work on every site, we expect to impact hundreds of additional existing projects across the city in this fashion with this new design philosophy. Thus far, new Parks Without Borders designs have lowered or eliminated fences or expanded the park amenities to the adjacent sidewalks, plazas and temporarily closed streets to create a more seamless public realm experience.
Parks Without Borders is nothing if not ambitious: We’re seeking to change the face of parks and public spaces across New York City. It’s a transformation so profound that it will not work without public buy-in, but through Parks Without Borders we were able to engage with New Yorkers exactly on why park design is important. NYC Parks articulated the power of design to meet a basic public need: access to quality open spaces. Through images and words, we communicated the idea that if something doesn’t look welcoming and accessible, fewer people will access it. If the public realm is not designed in a unified way, the result can be wasted spaces. If a park doesn’t look beautiful from the outside, it isn’t contributing as much as it can to the character of the neighborhood.
Parks Without Borders will take a few years to be fully realized, but less than a year in, we are already seeing New Yorkers build closer relationships with their neighborhood parks and public spaces. We are already breathing new life into neighborhoods by creating more seamless and accessible parks and public spaces.
Mitchell J. Silver is the NYC Parks Commissioner.