‘Permanent Open Streets in New York City will improve our quality of life, while setting a world-class example. But our approach needs to start with justice.’

open streets
Seen on Sept. 22 on Holland Avenue between Mace and Allerton Street in the Bronx, which is designated an Open Street.

New York City gained global attention as the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. And in response to a new reality, New Yorkers spent more time outdoors, taking to the streets for everyday activities while following socially distanced measures. This is a pivotal moment for righting the wrongs of our public space planning, with a sharp focus on equal access to permanent open and shared spaces—for all New Yorkers. 

It’s an easy argument to make: permanent Open Streets in New York City will improve our quality of life, while setting a world-class example. But our approach needs to start with justice. We must place Open Streets in the neighborhoods where COVID deaths per capita surpassed any other place on earth and where residents have disproportionately suffered from childhood asthma due to trucking corridors or local “peaker” plants. Equitable public space planning must be a part of our strategy to address these historical environmental inequities.

Open Streets allocate space to pedestrians and active transportation such as bike lanes. They reimagine a roadway not dominated by private cars. A network of Open Streets that connects nearby neighborhoods adds mobility options. It creates opportunities for people to walk freely, restaurants to provide outdoor seating, and children to play. Open Streets must address seemingly disparate issues of transportation, equity, climate change, accessibility, and public health. However, New York City’s approach, as a reaction to the pandemic, was implemented haphazardly and lacks the vision for this more permanent transformation. 

The neighborhoods that would benefit most from Open Streets have reaped the least benefits from the Open Streets rolled out by Mayor de Blasio. Recently, I walked through one of the Open Streets in the Bronx’s Allerton neighborhood. A barricade to mark the Open Street was broken, numerous vehicles were parked, and it was not, in fact, a street that was open to pedestrians and cyclists. Compare that with the Open Street on Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, where families gather to walk, shop, play safely, and vendors have established an outdoor presence. Allerton, one of the neighborhoods hit the worst by COVID-19, needs the full support of the city to ensure the Open Streets program is implemented so that families can benefit from it. And then there are areas of Brooklyn with the highest concentration of COVID-19 cases—Borough Park and Canarsie—without any Open Streets. 

Open Streets are often located in wealthy neighborhoods, where the residents have greater access to parks, or have left the city. The average median income of New York City’s 235 Open Streets locations is $81,567 compared to $60,762 for New York City overall. At a time when people need access to the outdoors, biking is increasing, and there is hesitancy around using public transit, we must create more options for all New Yorkers.

New York City has a history of Open Streets. Times Square was open to cars only ten years ago. Now, after its transformation, Times Square is a public plaza—home to tourists, street performers, and restaurants. What many considered an outlandish idea at first, has contributed to the cultural image of the city, increasing foot traffic by almost half a million pedestrians. Times Square also contributes approximately $1 in every $9 to the New York economy, and employs approximately 10 percent of people who work in New York City. Brooklyn’s Fulton Mall—closed to private cars in the 1980s—remains one of the most successful commercial districts outside of Manhattan for independently owned stores and retail chains. 

Despite these and other successes, the streets and public spaces in New York City were not developed with equity in mind. The de Blasio administration had committed 100 miles, only 1.6 percent of the city’s street mileage, of temporary Open Streets from the beginning of the pandemic’s spread. But since then, only approximately 70 miles of streets opened and only 37 percent of New Yorkers live within walking distance to an Open Street. About half of these Open Streets are only 0.16 miles or less long. Approximately 1.1 million New Yorkers, or 13 percent, primarily in high-density low-income Black and Brown communities, were not within a 10-minute walk during the height of the pandemic, a common barometer used to correlate public health with access to open spaces. What’s more, the NYPD manages 77 percent of current Open Streets, even though we know that the most successful Open Streets are managed by local leaders and community organizations. We should look to these local groups to lead the way, not ask the police to take on yet another task that can lead to conflict and mistrust.

To become a global leader in post-pandemic sustainable and equitable urban planning, our leaders must take a holistic and justice-driven approach to Open Streets. Let’s look at income levels, green space availability, air quality, areas more prone to extreme heat, and other factors to determine where we start first. We must mirror this data with grassroots efforts to engage community members, co-creating street design initiatives that address the needs of each neighborhood. And we must examine the existing roadways of New York City to enhance interconnectivity and design.

Open Streets are not a fad. They are the road to a more equitable future, and must be implemented today. To move the city in the right direction requires foresight and vision to reverse many of the public health, racial, and environmental inequities New Yorkers face. Together, we can make this a city that works. For Everyone.

Shaun Donovan is a former New York City housing commissioner, federal housing secretary and director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget who is exploring a run for mayor of New York City.