Post-COVID, A New ‘Office of Public Space Management’ Could Efficiently Fix the Current Mess

public space management montage

“If ever there was a breakpoint moment in this city’s history, this is it. It’s time to look anew at everything we do and see what works, what doesn’t work and what about our city government structure might be outdated or less effective,” Mayor de Blasio recently told the Charter Revision Commission.

The Neighborhood Empowerment Project could not agree more — especially when looking ahead to our post-pandemic city, when we’ll need to do more with less.

Given how poorly we cared for neighborhood streets when the city was flush, this prospect is concerning. Currently, garbage blocks pedestrians on sidewalks every afternoon; tree pits sit empty for years because the cost of a new tree, including payroll, can run to $4,000; creating a single loading zone, siting a Citi Bike dock or getting a “street seat” requires community board approval; car owners can leave their vehicles anywhere they want without asking for permission, but carving out a single bit of the curbside for a parklet or seating area requires the involvement of many staffers; and neighborhood trash collects in our bio-swales.

To address these indignities, we need to provide better service at a lower cost and change how we value our streets. Streets are not just conduits for traffic. Streets are places for people.

To put people first, we need to create structural reform in New York City government so that the system itself encourages local place ownership and can exploit civic action — a fundamental function that is currently missing from government today.

The Neighborhood Empowerment Project proposes a new Mayor’s Office of Public Space Management [PDF] that can remove silos between agencies and build capacity by providing a set of inexpensive tools for improving local streets — local streets that are not part of the transportation network and do not include bus lanes, bike lanes, truck or emergency vehicle routes.

We are not proposing additional bureaucracy. We are simply fixing the one we have.

For example, let’s look at the very public failure that is playing out — in real time — on W. 56th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues, a woebegone block in Midtown. For more than 10 years, that block has struggled with garbage storage and bike parking. Several years ago, the W. 50s Neighborhood Association organized a walk-through with the departments of Transportation and Sanitation. Nothing happened. Just six months ago, the association convened yet another meeting with two representatives each from the DOT and the DSNY and representatives from the City Council, including Council Member Keith Powers. But again, nothing happened because that particular street is not a citywide priority.

This approach to public space management — forcing a resident or business owner to contact multiple officials across many agencies, plus his or her council member, and set up site visits and community board presentations — is simply the least-efficient way of doing anything (let alone doing nothing, as happened in this case).

When the city gets back to living again, we will not have this luxury.

There are existing tools that are showing promise: The city is moving to create standards for containerized garbage and its collection. The DOT is trying to make it easier for residents or businesses to get a bike corral installed without months of meetings and site visits. But these nascent efforts — both years in the making — only show how urgently we need agencies to make simple public space tools such as bollards for slow streets, street seats, parklets and trees available on the ground level so they can be installed quickly and efficiently.

We have seen time and again that people care about their communities. If there is a simple way to engage and see concrete action, they will.  This plan will have a cost, but it will be offset by the money and man-hours saved in the system.

Here’s how the new Office of Public Space Management will work:

This Office will oversee a team of Public Space Managers — roughly five paid local experts per community board, matching the boundaries of existing NYPD sectors. These full-time managers will share the street tools, champion local issues and associations, recruit and organize volunteers and, in short, manage the greatest supply of public space we have: our streets.

As evidence of the potential power of local place ownership, under the mayor’s new program to open 100 miles of streets, the first round  of open streets were mostly overseen and managed by local Business Improvement Districts. Why? Because BIDs currently manage substantial amounts of public space in the areas where they operate, and are a reliable local partner that can provide supplemental clean-up and back-up as needed.

But BIDs are non-governmental agencies with staff funded by their local business community. And they only cover 2 percent of the city. So, what’s needed is a small team of public employees to do for neighborhoods what BIDs do for commercial strips.

If such a structure was in place now, we would not have an odd patchwork of open streets in some of our city, but a network of areas in every neighborhood, especially our hardest hit ones, for socially responsible recreation. The city’s Public Space Managers would have already educated and worked with local residents to pick the best non-network streets to close to through traffic and organized programming, where needed — no lengthy meetings or draining the resources of the city government. With a few traffic cones or barricades, the city could meet its goal of opening 100 miles of streets. Instead, we will have to continue to fight and waste time that should be spent elsewhere.

The “public space manager” approach is no different than good customer service. When customer service works properly, the local rep is authorized to make simple changes without running up a chain of command. An unsatisfied customer complains that a product was delivered without an attachment. The customer service rep clicks a few buttons and the attachment is on its way to the customer. This minor problem never requires the involvement of a manager, let alone a CEO.

Imagine this on a city level: A business owner requests a bike rack. The public space manager for that sector visits, confirms that the rack can fit safely, orders it from the already-approved vendor and oversees its installation. The entire structure of the Department of Transportation, let alone City Hall, does not get involved.

In both cases, the customer is satisfied. But in the city example, hundreds of people benefit from the new amenity on the street.

Even our mayor agrees that the time is ripe for change. Beyond the visible indignities of perpetually clogged storm drains and tree pits — the overarching indignity is that multiple city agencies overlap in the public space: DOT oversees sidewalks and the roadways; the Department of Parks and Recreation oversees trees and tree pits; the Department of Sanitation oversee cleanliness; The Street Activity Permit Office oversees activities, the Department of Environment Protection oversees storm water management and bio-swales and on and on— All that overlapping prevents us from taking advantage of the low-hanging fruit of government: Good design, community ownership and accountability.

Today we have the opportunity to empower people at the source to create something necessary in an efficient, non-bureaucratic, low-cost manner for the betterment of all New Yorkers — from seniors to cyclists to third-graders.

Let’s not let the opportunity pass us by.

Janet Liff is the co-founder of the Neighborhood Empowerment Project, which is an initiative of Open Plans, the parent organization of Streetsblog.

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