As public spaces in commercial districts increasingly become important places to build identity and share culture, Neighborhood Commons urges the City to reshape its approach to the management of public space.
Earlier this year, the Design Trust released a new toolkit supported by the NYC Department of Small Business Services as part of the Neighborhood Commons: Plazas, Sidewalks, and Beyond initative. During the uncertainty of COVID-19, New York City’s public spaces became a lifeline for small businesses and neighbors trying to safely see friends and families, access necessities and community resources, and simply get by.
Beyond the pandemic, public space remains an important aspect of the City’s cultural fabric and provides innovative opportunities to equitably strengthen local economies and community health. The bureaucratic red-tape around using and activating public space has become increasingly apparent.
Public space management in New York City is a complicated web spread across many departments and agencies. “Business as usual” is not only inhibiting creative programming and events for New Yorkers, but often excludes local groups and individuals from being able to participate and access crucial resources available to them
Aiming to provide small business and place-based organizations with recovery tools and strategies to utilize public space, the publication, Neighborhood Commons: Reimagining Public Space Governance and Programming in Commercial Districts, lists recommendations on ways the City of New York can update its management of public spaces located in the right-of-way, and how different models of local governance, stewardship, and service delivery can impact the economic resilience of small businesses.
Neighborhood Commons recommendations include an interagency working group to coordinate citywide policy, more accessible resources, and unified processes. Two pilot projects were developed and launched this Summer to test out these recommendations and bring creative new programming to New York neighborhoods.
To test the success of concessions on an open street, Neighborhood Commons partnered with I AM CaribBEING and the Brownsville Community Justice Center to launch the Watkins Public Space, a new community space bringing local makers and vendors to Brownsville this Summer. Featuring I AM CaribBEING’s iconic yellow shipping-container-turned-local-shop, the Watkins became a space for public art, food, family days, performances, and more in the neighborhood. Nestled between Watkins Street and Belmont Avenue, Watkins Public Space was open throughout the week June - July 2022 and hosted special events including Make Music Day, tape art, family activities, the debut of a new mural, Be on Belmont Festival, and a storytime with local Brownsville author and social worker Danielle Fairbairn-Bland who read from her new book “Nia’s Summer Vacation in the Caribbean,” a children’s story about family and culture.
The “What’s up, Jamaica!” exhibition highlighted how art and commerce can support each other in public spaces. Working in partnership with Cultural Collaborative Jamaica, 165th Street Mall, and King Manor Museum, “What’s up, Jamaica!” presents a look back at photojournalist Nat Valentine’s captivating work showcasing events and people around the neighborhood. As a photographer for The Times Ledger for nearly three decades and long-time resident of Queens, Nat Valentine’s work is a love-letter to the borough. Banners along 165th Street Mall in Jamaica displayed Mr. Valentine’s work as local vendors activated the space this past June with music, arts and crafts, games, food and plenty of dancing.
The community joy and celebration of culture fostered by these two summer projects highlight how critical small businesses are to the livelihood and well-being of New York’s neighborhoods. As Design Trust Executive Director Matthew Clarke testified to New York City Council on public space management oversights, “We are meeting a generational moment to rethink how public space can serve every New Yorker, and that our government is not yet structured to take advantage of this opportunity.”
The Design Trust for Public Space is looking forward to working with the City to put the Neighborhood Commons recommendations into action in order to create a more equitable and interconnected public realm across our city.
Learn more at neighborhoodcommons.nyc.
*Special thanks to NYC SBS and Street Lab for supporting this work. Meet our project team here.