New York City’s walking paths are primarily utilitarian; they direct us to work, to community hubs, to our weekend plans — and if they don’t stretch as far as we need, they lead us to the public transit stops that can carry us the rest of the way. In recent years, however, walking spaces in New York have begun to shift away from pure function. Public pedestrian plazas are popping up all over the city, encouraging fast-paced New Yorkers to do the unthinkable: slow down, relax, and put off their next trek to enjoy the neighborhood awhile.
Pedestrian plazas transform under-utilized streets into vibrant public spaces. The number of these transformations have skyrocketed over the past decade; according to analysts for the Global Designing Cities Initiative, there were a whopping 71 plazas in various stages of design, construction, or completion as of 2015. Of those, 49 were available for public use. More have appeared since then — however, the space that stands as the foremost example of these pedestrian-centered havens was one of the first to be built.
Now home to an expansive European-style piazza, Times Square at Broadway was once dominated by honking cars and bumper-to-bumper traffic. Before the city closed Broadway to vehicular travel, pedestrians had access to only 10% of the street space despite outnumbering cars by nearly nine to one. In 2009, the city launched the Green Light for Midtown project: an initiative which would block off vehicular traffic and optimize the space to better suit the needs of its overwhelmingly pedestrian user base. It’s fair to say that it worked; today, Times Square stands as an internationally-acclaimed haven for those experiencing the city on foot.
The flurry of plaza expansions is due in large part to the NYC Department of Transportations’ Plaza Program. Launched in early 2008, the initiative works to ensure that all New Yorkers need only walk ten minutes to find an open and welcoming public space. The efforts aren’t purely for aesthetics; as one nonprofit recently reported, “Plazas have been proven to enhance local economic vitality, pedestrian mobility, access to public transit, and safety.”
The program prioritizes projects in areas that currently lack such space — especially those in low-income or high-pedestrian neighborhoods. In creating these plazas, the city’s urban planners hope to create more pedestrian-friendly spaces, optimize neighborhood walkability, boost access to public transit, improve public health, better pedestrian and vehicular safety, and support local community development.
The Plaza Program accomplishes the above goals via partnerships with private entities, nonprofits, and neighborhood groups who apply for involvement. Generally, they employ a philosophy that the green infrastructure nonprofit Deeproot dubs, “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper,” or LQC. These groups use low-cost, low-risk methods to reimagine public spaces; often, the temporary changes they make serve as trial measures for more permanent changes down the line. One spokesman for Deeproot describes the process, writing:
“These street-to-plaza conversions use simple elements like moveable tables, umbrellas and chairs; colorful, patterned surface treatments and plantings; and lively and entertaining programming to create more publicly accessible open space […] Changes can include new amenities, such as planters and public art, new configurations of the street using paint and bollards, and space for events and activities.”
After the transformation takes place, the writer goes on to say, newly-minted pedestrian plazas often host a variety of community-friendly happenings, such as neighborhood movie nights, weekend farmers’ markets, and free concerts.
Pedestrian plazas seem to be all upsides — yet, even they have their critics. Some opponents worry that in closing streets for foot traffic, plaza proponents are curtailing access for emergency vehicles, limiting road connectivity, and overloading streets beyond their capacity. These concerns are valid; however, most urban planners have found that when properly designed and placed, walking plazas can re-route traffic to allow vulnerable walkers and bikers better access to their homes and neighborhood businesses without significantly blocking vehicular access to plaza-adjacent areas.
Critics may even find themselves switching sides on the debate once the plaza is in place. To quote Deeproot on the matter once more, “As more cities take the plunge into these conversions they often find that street-to-plaza conversions support local businesses, foster neighborhood interaction, enhance pedestrian safety, encourage non-motorized transportation, and reimagine the potential of city streets.”
For better or worse (but almost certainly better), pedestrian plazas are on the rise in New York. Like any living, evolving entity, cities experience growing pains. It may take time for urban planners to iron out the small snags in the plaza integration process, but the benefits these community spaces offer New Yorkers now are both real and considerable. So, the next time you join the current of walkers on the sidewalk, keep an eye out for a pedestrian plaza. Who knows; you might find yourself experiencing your old neighborhood in an entirely new way.