After the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, city-dwellers everywhere realized the importance of outdoor spaces. In New York City, the most densely populated city in the US with over 27,000 people per square mile, people realized the need for more space for outdoor activities. Thus, New York unveiled the Open Streets program during the pandemic in the spring of 2020 where the need for outdoor space was at its peak. Announcing the commencement of the program, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio stated that “One of the most important places to open are where people are going anyway, to give them more space since more and more people will go there when it gets warmer. We’ll focus on where the need is greatest and the communities are most affected”. By the end of the program, the City managed to create 83 miles of Open Streets. The success of the Open Streets program prompted de Blasio’s administration to transform the initiative into Open Boulevards program. Now the summer solstice has officially passed in 2022, New Yorkers are looking to find new ways and spaces to bask in the summer sun.
This year, the Open Streets program will be made up of over 300 city blocks throughout all five boroughs including 21 newly added locations in addition to the 135 returning locations. With the support the program has from both the Department of Transportation and New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ administration, Open Streets show no sign of slowing down. In a speech given on Earth Day, Adams reaffirmed his commitment to the program: “My administration’s commitment to the Open Streets program remains steadfast. As we work hand-in-hand with our partners on the ground to give communities the space and programming they need, I look forward to all they will offer their neighbors and our city”. While there are many proponents of the Open Streets program, many of whom value the way the program creates a greener, healthier, and safer city, there are also those that have mixed feelings on the program.
Some critics point at the lack of equity with the Open Streets program. In a survey done in 2021 by Transportation Alternatives, it was found that 84% of Open Streets in the Bronx and 69% of Open Streets in Queens were non-operational. Moreover, the survey also determined that open streets in Black and Latino communities were much more likely to lack useful barriers that prevent drivers from entering the streets. Cross-analyzing the role of income and access to the Open Streets, the survey found that households with an income under $50,000 had an increased chance of living near a low-rated Open Street whereas households with an income of over $100,00 had an increased chance of living near a high-rated Open Street. Furthermore, households with an income of $200,000 or more were over two times as likely to live within walking distance from a high-rated Open Street.
Thus, while the program has had its fair share of success, the program has also revealed underlying problems of equity and environmental justice. Even though the Bronx has the highest rates of asthma in NYC with a hospitalization rate that is 21% higher than the national average–relating to issues concerning environmental justice such as heavy traffic and high levels of air pollution–the Bronx did not receive close to the amount of planned open streets from the city with a grand total of 31 in 2020.
With this being said, there are still lots of New Yorkers who would like to see more Open Streets and the program’s expansion with a special look at equity – including NYLCV. According to a survey done by Data for Progress, 67% of voters approved of the Open Streets program and even more approved of it over the expansion of parking spaces. Lonnie Hardy, a Bronx-resident who established an open street on Jennings Street between Prospect Avenue and Chisholm Street with funding from the city and various sponsors, stated that “there should be open streets, not just on 34th Avenue or in SoHo.” All in all, the Open Streets program gives New Yorkers more space to spend time outdoors, a simple pleasure which can become a luxury in a city as large as New York. Not only are many of these Open Streets simply just not allowing cars to pass through, New Yorkers are also finding new and creative ways to use these open spaces from holding farmers’ markets to community barbecues. Street Lab, an organization aimed at creating programs for public space, has even created pop-up chalk murals and reading rooms that are transforming NYC’s streets into bustling hubs of creative expression.