I spent the 4th of July walking around Brooklyn, gaining my bearings, sketching, sound recording and adjusting to the heat before celebrating at a block party.

The 5th thus, began in earnest scholarship mode with a visit to the Department of Transportation in Lower Manhattan; a tall Manhattan-esqe building complete with vast foyer, bag scanning, marble finishes and banks of elevators.

I was there to meet Andrew Ronan of DOT to discuss the NYC Plaza Program; a framework for community organisations to partner with the DOT in order to transform underused streets into neighbourhood public spaces.

Note taking furiously for an hour I learned how the Program came into being, what work goes into making an active plaza, some of the spaces that have been created, how the application process works, the practicalities of the partnership and its current ambitions given it is nearly a decade old.

Originating in the Bloomberg administration’s 2007 PlaNYC economic and sustainability plan - which included the ambition that all New Yorkers live within a 10 minute walking vicinity of quality open space - the Program was launched just a year later and continues in place under the current Mayor, Bill de Blasio. Since then, 73 new plazas have been or are in the process of being created (52 are open to the public) with priority weighted towards neighbourhoods that lack open space.


Plaza priority areas in the 5 boroughs - Source NYC DOT

In order to enter the competitive application process, a community organisation needs to be formalised within certain criteria - a necessary measure since they will be committed to managing, maintaining and programming the space for 9 years in exchange for DOT closing a segment of the street then funding the design and construction of the space. Such groups will generally have already expressed an interest in creating a neighbourhood amenity, and might be steered toward the Plazas Program such that, as Andrew explained, the receipt of their application is anticipated.

Beyond the contractual obligation, the community group becomes the face of that intervention which can be crucial in avoiding the pernicious charge of city sponsored gentrification (the new plazas are identifiable across NYC by their bonded gravel, granite bollards and coloured chairs). To that end, all projects within the Program begin with a minimum of 2 public consultations, one of which might form a kind of 1 day representation of what the plaza could be.

It is an excellent scheme that seems to work well as a kind of mediator between top down and bottom up with tangible results. It was heartening to learn that in many cases a group might go on to champion other local causes as they galvanise their core, gain in confidence and learn more about how to access relevant municipal assistance. I’m looking forward to visiting some of the completed plazas across the city.

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