Neighborhood Commons

Executive Summary

Over the past few years, New York City’s public spaces have taken on new meaning, becoming lifelines for businesses and necessary escapes for neighbors. Design Trust for Public Space partnered with the New York City Department of Small Business Services on Neighborhood Commons: Plazas, Sidewalks & Beyond to look into how public spaces in commercial corridors are managed and programmed to support this multitude of uses. At a time when so many regulations were changing by the day, this was an opportunity to explore these challenges, to think outside of the box, and to recommend ways we can improve the current model of public space governance and lower barriers to participation in our public realm.

As one community collaborator said:
“We have a watershed moment, a giant turning of culture. How will we manage the entirety of what happens in public space for public access and commerce?”

Throughout the course of researching Neighborhood Commons, our team of fellows found that the citywide policies and programs that currently shape how public spaces may be used and managed not only inhibit innovative and creative programming, but also often exclude local groups and individuals from participating in the management and activation of these public spaces in commercial corridors. A complex web of rules governs our use of public spaces and on top of that, a variety of city agencies enforce and interpret these rules, levy fines, and oversee permitting, making it incredibly burdensome for local stakeholders to understand who to turn to when they want to utilize and activate these spaces.

We spoke to community leaders across the city, in 12 different neighborhoods, about their current work in public spaces. We heard time and again about the need for fostering better agency coordination, increasing resources in underserved communities, and addressing commerce holistically in public space.

In this report we’ve identified nearly 20 recommendations that would benefit how our public realm is managed and activated specifically along commercial corridors through increasing funding, providing technical assistance or changing processes.

The first goal that informs our recommendations is to prioritize user experience and establish clear and transparent regulatory processes that lower barriers to participation. This can be done by giving power to applicants to self-certify/self-declare on public realm activation permit applications, where appropriate. The second goal is to foster new and long-term coordination across city agencies that inform the design and use of the public realm, which can be accomplished through things like an interagency working group. The third goal is to ensure inclusive design of programs and policies with technical assistance and financial resources for lower-resourced neighborhoods.

Providing a pay scale system or fee/insurance waivers based on areas of need, or developing a self-sustaining Open Streets funding model would greatly benefit communities with fewer resources available than their neighboring communities. The final goal is to support commerce and entrepreneurship in the public realm. Licensed street vendors are a core part of our public realm. These entrepreneurs activate our streets, sidewalks and plazas. They need to be included in the planning and management of our public spaces.

With these goals in mind, Design Trust for Public Space is looking forward to working with the City to put these recommendations into action in order to create a more equitable and interconnected public realm across our city.