Photo: RPA

More public spaces are hidden in plain sight

The core of the region is crowded and getting more so every day. Streets and public plazas are filled to the breaking point. And yet, there are a number of places that could or should be a part of the public domain: streets and underground passageways that have been closed, underused public structures, hidden privately owned public spaces, rooftops, building lobbies, and architectural treasures that are largely inaccessible to the public.

These places could provide a range of urban environments to enjoy, infuse vitality into civic life and give residents a sense of ownership, civic pride, and connection with their city. But zoning regulations, insurance policies, and a culture of not prioritizing public access have prevented us from making full use of these places.

Opening more spaces to the public would transform our experience of the city

The success of the High Line, proposals like the Queensway and Low Line, and popularity of events like Open House New York show the demand for more public access to all parts of the urban environment, from tunnels to streets and rooftops. The more this demand can be fulfilled, the more people will be interested in and involved with their city, and the stronger our civic life will be be.

Empower communities to run pavement-to-playgrounds programs

Existing streets, parking spaces, vacant lots, and sidewalks could be reimagined as areas to play, both for permanent and temporary installations—particularly in neighborhoods with few playgrounds. Larger areas like parking lots could be permanently transformed, while smaller-scale on-street parking spots or underutilized sidewalk space in residential neighborhoods could be used as spaces to play on a temporary basis.

New York City already has a number of successful programs that should be expanded, streamlined, and coordinated, such as Schoolyards to Playgrounds, which is responsible for the renovation of hundreds of schoolyards and opening up access to them outside of school hours; the Play Street program, which allows communities to open up their streets to pedestrians for play on a recurring basis; and the Neighborhood Plaza Partnership initiative, which works with communities to turn parts of streets into public plazas.

Better manage privately owned public spaces

More than 500 privately owned public spaces (POPS) have been created in New York City in the 50 years since zoning regulations started to provide concessions to developers in exchange for giving public access to spaces within their property. But rather than requiring the POPS properties to remain in private ownership, the Department of City Planning should follow its waterfront development model and allow property owners to transfer title directly to the city. Other ownership and management options, such as easements, could also be explored. These alternative ownership structures should be prioritized for POPS with a history of access and maintenance problems.

Once in public ownership, these spaces could be managed directly by a city agency, likely the Parks Department. Local Business Improvement Districts could also extend their jurisdiction past sidewalks and streets to improving POPS. The city could also explore using the space for more public amenities like playgrounds, bathrooms, public art, and community events.

Where possible, POPS should be built to provide a continuous pedestrian area, with multiple entrances and exists. POPS that provide these connections between streets should be treated just like city streets, with matching signage and active incorporation into navigation apps and websites.

Reopen unused passageways and rights-of-way for public use

Several unused underground passageways in Manhattan could be reopened to relieve overcrowded streets and provide alternative pedestrian paths in inclement weather, such as the Gimbels Passageway between Penn Station and Herald Square, the Sixth Avenue passageway between Herald Square and Times Square, or the the 14th street passageway between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. These passageways, as well as currently open ones, could also serve as retail corridors similar to the underground concourses in Columbus Circles or Rockefeller Center. Similarly, streets that have been closed to traffic for security reasons, like Park Row in Manhattan, should be redesigned to be open, welcoming, safe, and accessible to bicyclists and pedestrians.

Connect office lobbies with the streetscape and allow more retail uses and openness

Office-building lobbies, although privately owned space, could be designed and programmed to be open extensions of the retail streetscape. Shops, cafes, and other commercial and community uses should be easily allowed inside building lobbies. Lobbies can also offer mid-block passageways—a valuable amenity in a city with long distances between avenues. Some New York City buildings already do this voluntarily or through the POPS program, and allowing retail uses or other incentives could encourage this to become standard practice.

Heavy security controls, minimal in other major cities but increasingly a standard part of the Manhattan landscape, are detrimental to a welcoming environment and often lead to significant delays, affecting business productivity. If these controls are necessary, they should not impede pedestrian flow through the building lobby. Many lobbies, most notably inside the Empire State Building, arrange security desks in a way that’s friendlier to pedestrian flow, and can serve as a template for best practices. In particular, the city should create a program to encourage public access to the more than 100 lobbies that are designated as historic landmarks.

Rethink roofs as public spaces

Roofs are one of our greatest untapped public-space resources. Although some building systems need to be located on roofs (particularly in flood zones), this does not preclude roofs from also being used for other purposes—like playgrounds, rooftop parks, farming and horticulture, next-generation digital and wireless networking infrastructure, or even goods delivery via drones.

Insurance requirements and building codes should be reformed to allow for more open and flexible use of roof space and give the public access to it. The Department of City Planning should reform zoning to allow POPS spaces to be located on publicly accessible roofs or terraces, or offer different concessions, as San Francisco has done. Zoning codes should also be changed to more easily allow commercial uses such as restaurants on roofs and upper floors of buildings.

Public buildings should take the lead in this transformation. The Bronx Borough Courthouse, which has a publicly accessible green roof, could serve as a model for other government-owned buildings.

Reserve more space for facilities-use through zoning

As the city’s population grows, so does the need for public facilities like schools, libraries, hospitals and clinics, houses of worship, and senior centers. In central areas where land values are high, these facilities find it difficult to compete with stores, offices, and other commercial uses that are able to pay more. The city’s zoning code should be more proactive in setting aside land for community facilities to ensure they are part of the neighborhood fabric.

Give the public better access to public buildings

Many publicly owned buildings could be made more welcoming and useful to visitors and neighbors. Dozens of small Parks-Department structures, schools, libraries, and administrative office buildings are scattered throughout the five boroughs and could be made more accessible to the public—letting civic organizations and residents use meeting spaces, for example.

New York City’s GreenThumb program, which has allowed many neighborhoods to create community gardens out of vacant lots, could be the model for a new program allowing community groups to access and use underused public structures, or even renovate them in exchange for long-term lease agreements.

Let people experience more of the city

Many public buildings and structures could be world-class attractions. Creating permanent spaces or even allowing special events in these structures would attract tourists and help locals celebrate their city’s architectural heritage. Cities such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Tokyo have public observation decks on top of city government buildings. In New York, one could be opened on the Municipal Building or another city- or state-owned skyscraper.

BridgeClimb is an attraction in Sydney, Australia, that allows visitors to climb up the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Similar climbs could occur on the Brooklyn Bridge or another landmark bridge, giving tourists and New Yorkers a new experience of their city. In previous decades, spectacular spaces such as the Brooklyn Bridge anchorages have been used for special events, which could be revived, and others spaces could also be opened for events or tours, following in the footsteps of the Transit Museum tours of places like the abandoned City Hall Subway Station and Williamsburg Trolley Terminal. These types of experiences don’t have to just be reserved for New York. All municipalities in the region have their own heritage and signature places, and could also institute their own “Open House” days.


Creating more space and places for people to enjoy in the urban core would make for an area in which living, working, and visiting is pleasant instead of stressful and overcrowded. A sense of civic pride and ownership would be created. Playgrounds, parks, and community facilities could be provided in areas where it would be much too expensive to find traditional sites to build them. New tourism opportunities would bring in more revenue and continue New York’s relevance as a global center and primary destination for visitors around the world. Allowing new retail spaces in lobbies and passageways would create more business opportunities, particularly for small local businesses who may not be able to afford store fronts in the expensive thoroughfares of Manhattan.

Paying for it

There would be some implementation costs for wayfinding, street redesigns, and building retrofits which would likely be paid for by municipal governments or Business Improvement Districts. However, these costs would generally be minimal. Some costs for landowners and developers could be absorbed through zoning or other development bonuses. Public buildings could also increase revenue through fees for usage, and more signature tourism opportunities have the potential for significant revenue—the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb brings in over $50 million a year in direct income. A more pleasant and open urban core is also a necessary investment in retaining and encouraging business and tourism, and the significant economic impact they bring.