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Urban Development

Pavement to plazas

Finding spaces for new public places in one of the world's densest cities

The Doable City Reader

There is so much that can be done to make our cities happier, healthier and more prosperous places. Every day in cities around the world, citizens and city planners alike are showing us how small actions can scale up to have massive impact. And they can in your city too.

That’s what the Doable City Reader is about. In June 2014, 8 80 Cities, in collaboration with the Knight Foundation, brought 200 civic innovators from around North America together in Chicago at the Doable City Forum to share and discover methods for rapid change making. The Doable City Reader is inspired by the rich conversations amongst presenters and participants at that forum. It is a resource for any and all people who want to make change in their cities and is meant to educate, inspire and empower anyone to do so.

Of all cities, one would hardly think of hyper-dense New York City as one with hundreds of thousands of extra square feet sitting around, ready to be turned into public plazas. But since 2008, it's done just that.

The city didn’t do it all at once by knocking down buildings to create a grand new public square. Rather, it found dozens of pieces of underperforming or unnecessary roadway (such as unneeded slip lanes or wide turns) throughout the city and filled them in bit by bit with pedestrian right of way—a couple thousand square feet at a time.

Requiring mostly just paint, planters or decorative bollards to separate the space from traffic, and a bit of street furniture, the projects are relatively simple and cheap to produce — they take up a total of about one per cent of the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT)’s capital budget.

But perhaps most importantly, these projects distribute the fruits of those resources more evenly throughout the city. Instead of concentrating resources by blowing the budget on one major project that is only within short walking distance of a few thousand residents, the NYC Plaza Program ekes out spaces all throughout the city, making more public space available to more people.

One of the ways the city makes it possible to continue the program is by partnering with community groups to share both the benefits and the responsibilities. The city now has a process by which non-profit organizations can apply to create plazas in the city. If selected, the DOT will fund the design and construction of the plaza, but the non-profit is responsible for the community outreach that assists the design process, funding and managing the maintenance of the space, providing insurance for the space and keeping it vibrant with programming such as markets, art installations and public events. Applications are selected based on a number of criteria including how needed open public space is in the community, and low- or moderate-income neighborhoods are given priority.

For more details, see a full list of public spaces that have been created under the NYC Plaza Program and learn more about how the program operates.

Broadway before Pavement to Plazas retrofit.NYC DOT
Broadway before Pavement to Plazas retrofit.
Broadway after.NYC DOT
Broadway after.