“By engaging students in conducting research and advocacy in the process of creating and running programs, and maintaining the street itself, schools can turn Open School Streets into canvases for students to reimagine what their communities can and should look like.”

Phillip Parris

The Futures Ignite/WHEELS/IS 143 Open School Street on Parking Day, September 2023.

COVID was a time of incredible suffering for New York City. But, as New Yorkers always do, we found ways to connect and lift each other even through tragedy.

The Open Streets program was perhaps the most visible example of that connection and community uplift. Just weeks after the pandemic hit, the city made a bold commitment: 100 miles of New York City’s streets would become free, public, pedestrian spaces in every neighborhood for New Yorkers to gather.

Open Streets quickly grew into hubs of culture, nourishment, recreation, learning, reconnection, and local commerce, sustaining communities and providing a sliver of joy against a backdrop of hardship and uncertainty. 

During Earth Month, we should reflect on programs like Open Streets which strengthen connections between New York City communities and the natural world. That includes lifting up their value, while also being real about how they can be improved. For example, as powerful as it has been, like so many programs, Open Streets was implemented in a deeply unequal way, and that inequity persists in the remaining sites.

Nearly half of New York City’s 1,859 schools applied to host an Open Street, but only an estimated 65-70 school-hosted Open Streets exist today. Even though communities of color suffered the worst impact from COVID-19, many of the school-based Open Streets are in whiter, more affluent neighborhoods that have the resources to maintain them, and that are more likely to have other public and private green spaces.

This spring marks the fourth season of Open Streets, and it’s not too late to fix this disparity. By expanding Open School Streets today, and by prioritizing schools in communities of color, New York City can take a bold step towards creating a healthier and more just city.

Open Streets are good for every community, but particularly positive for students. Open School Streets can make arrival and dismissal safer so that students and families don’t need to worry about car traffic. Schools can use them to expand cramped buildings’ footprints in any number of ways, such as creating learning labs during and after the school day for STEM and arts, offering spaces for student groups that affirm community and belonging, supporting social and emotional wellness, improving student health and local air quality through green infrastructure, creating programs for students to gain job experiences and explore post-secondary pathways, expanding athletic spaces, or any number of other purposes.

Open School Streets can become vehicles for equipping students as leaders to shape their futures. By engaging students in conducting research and advocacy in the process of creating and running programs, and maintaining the street itself, schools can turn Open School Streets into canvases for students to reimagine what their communities can and should look like.

At Futures Ignite, our students are creating a Clean Air Green Corridor. Futures Ignite provides school-based counseling, leadership development, and community building so that students develop and achieve their vision for life after high school. Our students at the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS) have developed a vision for the corridor as an important strategy to improve environmental conditions and expand access to public space in our community.

Founded pre-COVID, the Corridor began to blossom by establishing an Open School Street. Today, thousands of students and community members take part in Corridor activities every year. Students conduct environmental research, study real-life science in hands-on ways, and educate and organize their peers and their neighbors through arts, workshops, and a range of creative activities.

Washington Heights is overburdened by pollution. It has historically been marginalized by underinvestment. The Open School Street propels our vision for a Clean Air Green Corridor that, one day, will span several additional blocks connecting five schools and thousands more students, families, neighbors, and businesses. Through the Corridor, our young people and community are on the frontlines of building a more sustainable and climate-resilient city and nation.

Our vision is not just for the Clean Air Green Corridor in Washington Heights but for our city.  Mayor Eric Adams and the NYC Council should prioritize Open School Streets in three important ways. First, the city must mandate car-free streets and green spaces around schools, a trend that it needs to catch up to. This change will have an immediate net positive impact on safety, health, environmental improvements, and community well-being.

Second, New York City must invest in Open School Streets. A multi-agency office of Open School Streets would ensure that every school can have an Open School Street. Critically, the office could prioritize schools with little or no access to green space or playgrounds and overcrowded school buildings, those near highways, with higher rates of asthma and traffic injuries, and those more likely to be heat deserts and lacking sufficient HVAC systems.

Third, invest in students, schools, and communities through Open School Streets. Use Summer Youth Employment Program funds to support summer jobs to lead Open Street programming, supported by community-based organizations. Ensure every school and community has access to funds to operationalize the Open School Street. Provide opportunities for every Open School Street to become a science learning lab through environmental research and youth-friendly citizen science.

By investing in Open School Streets, and providing resources for schools and community-based organization partners, New York City can make a transformational contribution to its young people and families, creating a more restorative city through a permanent ribbon in our streetscape and infrastructure, ensuring all young people have access to green space, environmental learning, and space to call their own.

Molly Delano is the executive director of Futures Ignite.