As politicians quibble over schedules and temperate checks: parents, teachers, principals, custodians and children could learn from the City’s most recent attempt to better use the public space of streets.

Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg (foreground) and Mayor de Blasio at a June press conference.

As we enter month six of lockdown, the pandemic demonstrates the fragility of New York City’s government and social safety net. And like so many New York stories, the story of disrupted services and upended daily life is a story of real estate. As families have been forced to stay home, the spaces of community networks of care have been decimated. Nowhere is this clearer than in the battle to open schools. One of the most significant challenges facing educators right now is one of real estate: there simply is not enough space for students and teachers to healthfully interact. But there is one publicly available resource: the right of way. Earlier this week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the City’s school system would delay opening until September 21st and would roll out an Outdoor Learning Initiative. As politicians quibble over schedules and temperate checks: parents, teachers, principals, custodians and children could learn from the City’s most recent attempt to better use the public space of streets.

In Red Hook, Brooklyn, more than 60 percent of residents live in public housing, NYCHA recently removed 75 percent of all trees from the Red Hook Houses as part of a Sandy recovery upgrade, making streets unbearably hot. Black and brown New Yorkers are five times more likely to suffer from chronic conditions such as asthma and diabetes than their white counterparts. During any normal summer in New York City, half of all people who die from heat are Black. Reducing the risk of the spread of COVID-19 translates into increasing risk of illness from extreme heat. Red Hook’s environmental justice and spatial inequality illustrate the unhealthy and untenable conditions faced by so many New Yorkers stuck inside.

Rolled out in late May, the City’s Open Streets/Open Restaurant programs had the goal of prioritizing people over cars, and allowing space to spread out, recreate, and, potentially, stay cool. The Red Hook Cool Streets program, coordinated in partnership between the Columbia University Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes, Good Shepherd Services, and the RETI Center, attempted to take advantage of this program to provide higher-quality and healthier open space, through street cooling measures, to provide a relief valve for families stuck inside at home. By pairing volunteer designers with community organizations, the program sought to provide easy, cheap, and fast ways to provide more healthy and safe places to stay cool.

Unfortunately, roadblocks handicapped the potential of the program. The sanctioned streets were arbitrarily chosen, and subject to limited hours, sometimes conflicting and rapidly changing rules. The basic logistics of storing and deploying the street furniture fell on extraordinarily overtaxed community-based organizations. High quality place-making measures are sturdy and at least semi-permanent: designing and deploying temporary measures are often flimsy and or too small to have a meaningful impact. A program that depends solely on residents’ resources for implementation will only reinforce structural racism and inequality. Co-design in placemaking requires designer and community members to deeply collaborate, which isn’t possible when people are extraordinarily taxed by trying to simply stay alive. Red Hook’s stressed community network can’t be expected to provide essential services such as food relief and also be expected to move around benches and awnings to make an enticing and cool streetscape.

The Open Restaurant program allows restaurants to place semi-permanent structures that allow for outdoor seating in parking spaces. This program has been much more successful: It allows more substantial investment and can rely on the stability and uniformity of restaurant professionals to deploy. It is also customer and user focused: Restaurants created spaces that are designed to make customers want to visit while minimizing viral spread. This built-in structure for ownership and stewardship is critical for a successful design, deployment, and user experience. This has worked especially well in economically prosperous communities, like the West Village, Park Slope, and Fort Greene. 

The Department of Education could learn significantly from the failures and potential opportunities of Open Streets. Deployment is resource dependent: without additional support stretched and underserved schools are expected to do more with less, which exacerbates existing inequality. Outdoor furniture to support learning, from seating, tables, and awnings, must be sturdy enough to be effective in inclement weather, yet removable once class moves indoors. Custodial staff, already spread thin and generally unappreciated, need to be a part of determining what can be cared for so that the spaces work day after day, week after week.

Flimsy tents and poorly configured spaces may weaken the potential of this pilot, and it is a disservice to New York City’s one million school children to view outdoor learning space as temporary need rather than opportunity to permanently expand the footprints of space for learning.

Every school’s physical plant is as unique as the community of students it serves. Principals and teachers can’t be expected to design successful and healthy learning environments without the buy-in of parents and herculean design, deployment, and maintenance crew. Creating open-air classrooms may not be appropriate in all school locations; however, opening streets can provide the temporary spaces for safely supervised queueing, screening, and recreation in spatially starved schools. Allowing schools to use street space expands the potential real estate of every school without spending a dollar. Rather than wasting valuable real estate on immobile cars, let’s park education at the top of New York City’s agenda.

Deborah Helaine Morris is currently a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. She is the former executive director of Resiliency Policy, Planning, and Acquisitions at the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development.