When the Covid-19 pandemic restricted indoor dining, New York City restaurants took to the streets — literally.
“Streeteries” — temporary outdoor seating areas that extend into street parking spaces and sidewalks — have become vibrant staples on NYC streets. At the start of the pandemic, these structures were rudimentary, their boundaries defined by beer kegs and makeshift seating. But as months passed, some restaurants have leaned into the outdoor dining norm to make spaces that feel more permanent and welcoming.
Today, many outdoor areas are enclosed by inexpensive but aesthetically-pleasing features such as wooden fencing, planters, and greenery. These spaces typically include seating and bike racks but can also encompass tables, games, and artwork.
In July of 2020, Curbed’s Diana Budds took a bike tour around Brooklyn and found a kaleidoscope of unique decorating styles and creative arrangements. She described her findings for the magazine, writing:
On Smith Street in Cobble Hill, a block of adjacent restaurants all appeared to have worked with the same builder — all of them had trellises topped with a few potted plants which made their outdoor spaces feel like gardens. Brooklyn Pizza Market made their barriers unique by repurposing tomato cans into planters. Xochitl Taqueria painted their plywood enclosure a buttery yellow. On Fifth Avenue, one restaurant painted its barriers white and decorated them with cascading flowers and vines — cottagecore in the wild. I also really enjoyed the Barragan-esque bright pink Cubana Cafe used for their outdoor area. Café Grumpy, a coffee shop on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, used shipping pallets to enclose their seating area.
Of her explorations, she concluded: “These improvised spaces offer refreshing breaks from the relentless blandmarks (sic) and towering luxury condos that have defined the city’s new architecture for the past few years.”
These features seem like a silver lining amid the pandemic — an opportunity to refresh New York’s urban landscape with greater vibrancy and architectural flair. They also appear to be entrenching into greater permanency; according to another Curbed report, at least one construction company in the city has pivoted to focus almost exclusively on building streeteries once the demand for office construction all but disappeared.
Of course, one could argue that these temporary outdoor havens are by nature temporary and will disappear once the need for social distancing has passed. Eating outdoors in cold weather, after all, isn’t most customers’ preferred dining experience. However, it’s difficult to believe that these structures will disappear entirely now that restaurant owners have had the opportunity to recognize their potential as attractive gathering-spaces.
“The beauty of streeteries lies in the fact that they are flexible; they can be permanent, semi-permanent, or seasonal,” Evan Goldin explained for the National Association of Realtors. “They can work in spaces of any shape and size. In addition, they can feature moveable furniture and planters that can be easily removed or replaced. It is precisely this adaptability […] that makes them so popular.”
Streeteries have been necessary, yes — but they also created welcoming atmospheres for countless restaurants under stress and provided vibrancy and cheer in a time when New Yorkers needed both the most. These structures may have started as temporary fixes, but it’s certainly worth hoping that the brightness they provide will remain on a more permanent basis.
After Amazon’s caustic breakup with New York City came to pass on Valentine’s Day 2019, even the most optimistic tech enthusiasts had to doubt that the e-retail giant would ever return to New York City in force.
Why would it, when its much-negotiated plans in the city had fallen through? Amazon’s dreams of having a four-million square foot campus on the East River had crashed and burned, and any return it did attempt would lack the nearly $3 billion in public funds it had negotiated for during H2Q negotiations.
Given the acrimony of the split and the volume of perks lost, a reasonable person might think that Amazon would storm out of New York and seek the support it wanted elsewhere. But now, shockingly, Amazon is back in town — and it won’t be leaving anytime soon.
In early March, Amazon paid $1.15 billion to acquire the iconic Lord & Taylor building on Fifth Avenue, which it intends to staff by 2023. Company press releases further indicate that the e-retailer plans to recruit a whopping 2,000 employees from New York City.
But how does this about-face make sense? Wasn’t the whole point of Amazon’s split with NYC that the city couldn’t offer what the company needed? Well, yes — and no.
Amazon might not be getting $3 billion in public support anymore, but New York is still one of America’s foremost business hubs. Over the last decade, New York has become the East Coast equivalent of Silicon Valley, offering a welcoming home to established tech giants and nascent startups alike.
“We know that talent attracts talent, and we believe that the creative energy of cities like New York will continue to attract diverse professionals from around the world,” Ardina Williams, Amazon’s vice president of workforce development, shared in a release on Amazon’s office acquisition.
Other major companies seem to share this sentiment. Before the pandemic took off in March, Google added over 1.7 million square feet of commercial real estate towards its developing campus in Manhattan. Apple, Amazon, and Facebook have purchased more than 1.6 million square feet of office space since the start of 2020.
But New York doesn’t just offer an exceptional business location — it also provides top-tier talent. NYC currently encompasses over 120 universities and is ranked first globally for the number of STEM-field graduates produced annually. A full tenth of the nation’s developers live in New York City, and, according to a recent HR&A report, tech firms in the city have the fastest average hiring time for engineers across all US tech hubs. Major player statistics underpin New York’s talent advantage; collectively, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple have hired over 2,600 employees in New York since the start of 2020.
Worth noting, too, is that Startup Genome ranked NYC first globally in terms of funding availability and quality. The metro region alone received an incredible $13 billion in funding in 2018. New York’s wealth of available talent, preexisting tech presence, and deep funding pools cement NYC as a go-to place for tech interests.
Moreover, tech sector optimism continues to run high despite the uncertainties of COVID-19. As one writer for the New York Times recently reported: “Executives at the companies said their investments even during one of the city’s darkest periods reflect their belief that the features that set New York apart — its diversity, culture, regional transportation network and numerous colleges and universities — will keep luring people after the pandemic.”
Of course Amazon has returned to the city; its acrimonious exit was a $3 billion bluff. It would be a mistake to view the city as being any less than it is: one of America’s foremost tech hubs.
Any other year, an outdoor lesson might have felt like a walk in the park — literally. But now, having a chance to participate in school activities against a backdrop of changing leaves feels less like an autumn picnic and more like a chilling necessity.
As of early September, around 800 New York City schools had obtained approval to hold part of the school day in recess yards, closed-off streets, or city parks as per the city’s newly-minted outdoor learning program. This much-lobbied program gives approved schools the option to hold art, music, and gym lessons outdoors if they so choose. Academic classes can also take place outside, provided that the school has enough space to support them in addition to other outdoor activities.
The vast majority of schools that applied to the Education Department for program approval received it, with only a handful of declines due to safety concerns. However, education officials prioritized their considerations based on need — the schools that have been hit more severely by COVID-19 and those without dedicated schoolyards took precedence.
Countless parents, faculty, and administrators successfully lobbied local government officials to uphold outdoor learning; now, their implemented program enjoys widespread support.
“A new outdoor learning plan that is going to open up a lot of new, wonderful possibilities for our kids and for our educators,” Mayor Bill de Blasio commented during a press conference on the matter. “We heard those voices that said, ‘Could we do something different under these circumstances?’ The answer is: yes. This will apply to our public schools, our charter schools, private/religious schools, Learning Bridges schools. You name it. One standard for all.”
The idea behind the program is simple: by moving classes outdoors, schools can better allow for learning while limiting the risk of COVID-19 spread. Public health authorities have firmly established that outdoor environments tend to be safer due to their increased air circulation.
As one writer for the Mayo Clinic explains: “When you’re indoors, you’re more likely to inhale these droplets from an infected person, especially if you’re in close contact, because you’re sharing more air than you do outdoors. Poor building ventilation can cause droplets to hang in the air for a longer period of time, adding to the potential for infection. When you’re outside, fresh air is constantly moving, dispersing these droplets. So, you’re less likely to breathe in enough of the respiratory droplets containing the virus that causes COVID-19 to become infected.”
It is worth noting that there is a precedent for outdoor learning, too. In the early 1900s, several New York City schools attempted to minimize tuberculosis spread by moving students to outdoor classrooms on rooftops and, in one case, an abandoned ferry.
Holding open-air classes is an excellent idea in theory — but in practice, a few flaws remain.
Since the plan’s debut in late August, several educators have raised concerns that it would unfairly benefit privileged city schools while leaving poorer institutions out in the proverbial (if not literal) cold. Their concerns are warranted; after all, outdoor learning isn’t feasible for schools located in areas with high levels of violence or those near noisy roadways. Schools in wealthier neighborhoods often have the advantage of being within walking distance of parks or having green space on-campus.
Moreover, the bill for outdoor learning can be difficult for poorer schools to foot. As one reporter for the New York Daily News recently pointed out, “Schools are responsible for raising their own funds to purchase tents for shade and weather cover, and must provide their own barriers and staffing to close off adjacent streets — leaving schools with wealthy parents in a better position.”
Some argue that this gap reflects a lack of adequate planning from the city. Indeed, comments from city leadership on the economic barriers faced by less-privileged schools seem to convey some passing of the buck.
“If a PTA has done their fundraising and they’ve raised more than enough for their school, let’s identify another school that doesn’t have that fundraising capacity,” Chancellor Richard Carranza suggested during a news conference.
Administrators and education lobbyists weren’t entirely satisfied with that response.
“Relying on PTA fundraising to fund this effort only exacerbates inequity,” Mark Treyger, the chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee, pointed out on Twitter after the conference.
Outdoor learning has a great deal of potential. However, we need to continue to workshop the idea even as we implement it and find ways to give less-privileged schools the resources they need to hold open-air classes with as much ease as their wealthy counterparts. Children should have the chance to learn and gather in safety — now, it’s up to educators and the city of New York to turn a great idea into a fair and effective solution.
In the space of a few short months, New York City has gone from being the epicenter of America’s COVID-19 concerns to a shining example of pandemic response management. Its dogged pursuit of health and safety, as well as its transparent, information-driven approach to disease management, have empowered New Yorkers to emerge from the initial panic caused by the pandemic with grace and hope.
In early August, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the states’ COVID-19 numbers had ebbed to epic lows. Test rates have remained consistently under one percent positivity for more than two weeks. The number of hospitalized patients, intubations, and ICU cases have all dropped to the lowest they have been since mid-March.
This is news worth celebrating; however, the struggle isn’t over yet. Now that the immediate crisis has stabilized, New York needs to turn more attention to upholding the local economy by encouraging economic activity and ensuring that local shops and community hubs stay afloat.
That said, New Yorkers can’t throw caution to the wind by welcoming the city’s signature shoulder-bumping crowds back in full force. If we do, we’ll be back where we were in late March — anxious, overwhelmed, and at a real risk of spreading COVID-19 throughout the city.
“Make no mistake: this virus is still surging in parts of the country and until there is a vaccine we cannot become numb or complacent about the risks we face,” Governor Cuomo recently said after recapping the city’s progress against the pandemic. “Local governments must continue to enforce public health guidance and we all must remember to be smart — follow the guidance, wear masks, socially distance and stay New York Tough!”
But how do we do that? How can we strike a balance between encouraging economic activity and ensuring that New York’s residents are socially distanced?
Already, some businesses have begun to brainstorm safe ways to welcome consumers into their stores. Over the last few weeks, many have put a particular emphasis on organizing space. Go to any grocery store, and you’ll see six-foot blocks spray-painted in a line that extends halfway down the block. Similar measures have been taken outside public restrooms, farmers’ markets, museums, and attractions. In an ideal world, this approach would allow consumers to navigate bustling shopping districts within invisible, six-foot bubbles of personal space.
But one journalist for the real estate magazine Curbed suggests that while demarcating space presents the start of a solution, we should also consider how we might lay claim to time.
“It’s not difficult to imagine, as temperatures rise and crowds form, that we may soon be reserving six-foot circles in the park, spots in parking lots near public beaches, or 20-minute time slots at the local splash pad or pool,” Alexandra Lange writes. “The fall will bring still more time slots — chosen, not by us, but by teachers and employers.”
Lange names her imagined approach timed ticketing. The system she outlines would call for New York’s logistical divisions to draw lines on their daily calendars as regularly as store proprietors do on the sidewalk. She notes that establishing time slots for certain kinds of road use (say, biking or bus-riding) isn’t unheard of — in the early 1900s, New York streets frequently closed for a few hours after the end of the school day to allow children to play before the evening rush.
Already, the MTA has begun establishing a time-aware system for commuters. The department recently published a 13-point action plan that included staggering business hours, as well as dividing commuters into groups that would use public transit on different days of the week to limit crowding.
But we can extrapolate this line of thinking beyond employees to shoppers, tourists, and other city travelers. In the future, New Yorkers might reserve a time slot to visit their favorite store, set aside a few hours to traverse a shopping district, or even claim twenty minutes to visit one of the gardens in Central Park.
This isn’t a perfect solution. It removes spontaneity, the driver behind impulse purchases, and window-shopping. However, timed ticketing does provide a solution for safety that might, for now, help New Yorkers safely return to some semblance of normal — within a defined time slot, of course.
Let’s face it; New York City gets hot in the summer. According to state-published statistics, average temperatures regularly hover in the mid-80s during June, July, and August. Having a place to cool off during the summer isn’t a nice-to-have for New Yorkers; it’s a necessity.
Typically, the city addresses this need for cooler temperatures by providing a host of public services. Free public pools are available across the five boroughs, and residents have easy access to the state’s beaches. NYS Parks employees also maintain a host of spray showers, which are typically activated mid-morning on any day predicted to reach 80 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
But, of course, this isn’t the average summer. Concern over the spread of COVID-19 has come to dominate public health conversations in New York. Since the virus’s arrival in March, New York has emerged as a national role model for containing the disease. The city’s case numbers and reported deaths have both seen steady declines, trends which have inspired both optimism — and pragmatism — among New York’s leaders.
“We worked very hard in New York, and the people of New York sacrificed for the past three months,” Governor Andrew Cuomo shared in a recent briefing. “They closed down, they wear masks, they socially distance, we have the virus under control, and we don’t want to see it go up again. It’s that simple, and people understand that. So I think they’re going to honor it because people at the end of the day get it now.”
New Yorkers aren’t safe from COVID-19 yet. White House public health advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, echoed Governor Cuomo’s point in a comment for the Telegraph, noting that while a return to normal life could occur within a year, “people need to tamp down their expectations for typical summer travel and activities.”
Social distancing is still a must, especially for those in high-risk age and health groups. But with so many isolating indoors, without access to public cooling measures, will New York’s summer heat become more problematic than usual?
New York is nevertheless determined to mitigate the risks.
In mid-June, Mayor Bill de Blasio rolled out Get Cool NYC, a program which “addresses the higher risk for indoor heat exposure for New Yorkers this summer, due to staying inside for social distancing, especially for those most at risk of COVID-19 complications.”
The city has so far installed 4,500 air conditioners in public housing and intends to provide 74,000 by the end of the summer. The New York State Public Service Commission has also given the city permission to provide $70 million in financial assistance to vulnerable, low-income New Yorkers so that they can pay higher-than-usual summer utility bills.
“With this all-hands-on-deck effort to ensure people can pay their cooling bills and to provide air conditioning units to those in need, the City is keeping our communities safe at a very delicate time,” New York’s Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner, Louise Carroll, commented on the program.
Proponents for Get Cool estimate that this aid will provide relief for roughly 440,000 families in the city.
Of course, outdoor cooling is still available. According to reporting from Curbed, the NYC Parks Department will be creating outdoor misting sites in addition to their usual spray showers, and also designate some open streets as “cool streets.” These neighborhoods will offer open fire hydrants to overheated pedestrians in areas at high risk of overheating. The city also intends to establish unconventional cooling centers at spacious facilities such as auditoriums and sports venues that can offer temperature relief while still accommodating social distancing.
This summer will be different from past years, yes — but despite those changes, New Yorkers will be able to enjoy familiar, warm-weather amenities in safety.
New York City has always been known for its pedestrian experience. In usual times, a walk through any one of the five boroughs demands a quick stride, assertive attitude, and an ability to navigate through tides of people, cars, and buses. But now, the days of fighting for crosswalk space might (temporarily) be at an end. In May, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would open 40 miles of streets to pedestrians, with the intent to open almost 100 miles through the remainder of the pandemic.
“The open streets are going to be another way to help encourage social distancing, because the warmer weather tells us we’re going to have a new challenge,” de Blasio commented during a press conference announcing the new policy. The city’s first open streets will be those nearest to and inside public parks, to give residents an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors without undue risk of contagion. According to CNBC reporting, the city will continue to monitor outdoor activity to ensure that social distancing measures are observed.
New York’s open-street experiment follows similar policies implemented in cities such as Boston, Minneapolis, and Oakland. The sudden openness has reportedly been transformative for some communities, enabling residents to find cheer and safely connect to their neighbors in a way that has been all but impossible since shelter-in-place measures began.
In a recent article for Curbed, Oakland resident Courtney E. Martin explained how open-street policies had revitalized her community under quarantine and brought about opportunities for outdoor family fun that would never have existed during ordinary circumstances.
“‘Slow streets,’ overnight, transformed our family life and the lives of our neighbors,” Martin writes. “We had struggled to find a place to teach our daughter to ride her bike up until this point. It always seemed like such a production. Easier to just scoot along the sidewalk and put it off. But the minute the streets opened up, we got our helmets on and headed out […] The only thing that may be as reliable as toilet paper selling out during this strange era is kids learning to ride bikes.”
But not all perspectives on the open-street initiative have been quite so cheerful. In New York, the idea faced significant pushback from city leaders. At one point, Mayor Bill de Blasio went so far as to say that, “I do not believe it will work, period.”
While it’s still early in the roll-out process, his perspective appears to have been overly pessimistic. The reopening has so far gone smoothly — and it is worth noting that nearly two months have passed since the last time a pedestrian was fatally struck by a car in New York City. This period, ABC 7 reports, “marks the longest stretch since the city began tracking pedestrian fatalities in 1983.”
In trying times like these, such good news is worth celebrating. As summer progresses, it will be exciting to see how New Yorkers use the open-street policy to safely revitalize community spirit and foster joy despite the pressures of COVID-19.