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In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, as we better understood what we could safely do, New York City emerged from its lockdown. New Yorkers embraced an outdoor civic life with an emergent pilot eventually called Open Streets. The strategy threw communities and businesses a lifeline and enabled neighborhood recreation and exercise, gathering together, dining outdoors, and connecting with our neighbors and the city.

Whether it was Sunday afternoon dancing on St. James Place in Brooklyn, neighborhood socials on 34th Avenue in Queens, enjoying a bite to eat on 8th Street in the Village, or discovering what pedestrian-prioritized urban life means in the Meatpacking District, Open Streets provided a much-needed way for us to be together and reconnect with our friends, our communities, and the city itself. Our response brought out the spirit that makes us love New York. Eighty-three miles (134 km) of streets, 11,000 restaurants, and many community groups and other businesses took advantage of the program to experiment with using our streets in a different way.  

“Open Streets have been a lifeline for our merchants during COVID and also an experiment in balancing the use of public space between pedestrians, vehicles, and commerce,” says William Kelly, executive director of the Village Alliance Business Improvement District. “The blocks that have participated in the program have seen a rise in foot traffic, and in the coming year we hope to see how Open Streets may create lasting benefits by prioritizing health and safety for all.”

Social distancing in New York City’s Central Park. (Shutterstock)

Responding to the pandemic through the Open Streets program were the following:

A call to action: Testing out new approaches to managing streets aligned with established city goals and the benefits of urban living.

A shifting perspective: Uniting people and communities by creating outdoor spaces that we can all use and enjoy.

A time to learn and evolve: Embracing and adapting to the moment at hand and accepting that we won’t get everything right.

One year in, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and we are beginning to prepare for our future without the threat of COVID in our lives. Looking to that future, what will become of the Open Streets program? What was learned and what should be retained? What should be changed or removed? How can our experience with Open Streets enable a further engagement with our streets as civic spaces and outdoor activity centers, in a fashion similar to what is found in many other parts of the world?

Building Upon a Solid Foundation

Over the past two decades, New York City redefined the purpose of streets and the roles they play in our city and our lives. Streets were once unquestioned territory for civic life and people were expected to use them for walking, shopping, and engaging in urban living.

With the rise of the age of the automobile, however, all that changed. We closed roads to people and dedicated our streets for the use of vehicles. Streets became space for mobility and traffic, not spaces for people. Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg with his trailblazing Department of Transportation (DOT) commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn, New York City questioned the primacy of the car and recalibrated street management, road design, and transportation systems to make streets more livable, to provide more public space, and to create new opportunities to walk, cycle, ride transit, and enjoy outdoor life across the city. 

This tradition continued under Mayor Bill de Blasio and DOT commissioner Polly Trottenberg, with a focus on the much-needed traffic safety program Vision Zero, further expansion of walking and cycling, and robust expansion of Select Bus Services. With each evolution, we learned more about how to strike a balance between the need to move and the need to live, the need to be more equitable about the distribution of open spaces, bus services, and cycling across the city, and the need to prioritize design itself. And yet, with New York City’s population at its highest now than at any time in its history, along with more workers and tourists than ever before, there was a clear need for more room despite these advances.  

A sidewalk chalk drawing in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx.

The Pandemic Open Streets Pilot Program

COVID-19 struck an even stronger note on the need for room to expand. As more of society was shut down to stop the spread of coronavirus, people were faced with the dilemma of living in often small quarters without the city to offer relief. The old adage about New York City being New Yorkers’ living room proved true and there was an urgent need to find ways to provide this space in another way. From this need emerged the Open Streets program.

Other cities were first to embrace city streets as public spaces and experiment with part-time and full-time closures to allow for more activities to take place outdoors. From those experiments, New York City learned what was working and what to watch out for and unveiled its own Open Streets program with a menu of different Open Street types—those for neighborhood play, those for dining on weekends, and those for dining all week.   

The 34th Avenue Open Street in the Jackson Heights neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens demonstrates the opportunity that the residential Open Streets program provides to residential communities. The community closes 1.3 miles (2 km) of 34th Avenue to general traffic from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. each day. The closure allows the community to occupy the street to exercise, conduct classes, learn to dance, distribute food to those in need, create art, and connect with one another. The strong response grew and there is now a growing coalition supporting the street closure. Local traffic can enter and travel at 5 miles per hour during these times. It is a primary bicycle arterial through the neighborhood, and balancing travel speeds and local activities could be solved through design solutions. 

Restaurants allow restaurant expansion into sidewalk areas and parking spaces in front of or adjacent to a business. The response along the avenues of Manhattan was robust and city blocks are now dotted with new outdoor dining areas. A lifeline to local restaurateurs and diners, the restaurants often straddle the city’s extensive network of bike lanes. At the time of this writing, travel volumes continue to be well below typical daily volumes.  Restaurants are also not running at full capacity yet. Thus, there can be coexistence between moving through on bicycles and crossing lanes to serve diners or to sit at a table, but can it persist as activity levels across the city increase in a post-COVID era? Are there ways to replicate the protected bike lanes we enjoy and push outdoor dining to the curb? While this would remove the conflict between cyclists and restaurant activity, it would also remove an unexpected benefit of putting the restaurants outside the bike lane—bike lane protection.  

Open Streets was not a pilot in reallocating road space. City agencies came together and, working with the Office of the Mayor, quickly developed means and methods for departments to work together, cut red tape, and allow businesses to reopen quickly. This unprecedented effort meant that 11,000 restaurants and businesses were able to participate in the program, working in close collaboration with city agencies to great benefit.

Historically, doing business outdoors in New York City involved legal advisers, expensive permits, and time-consuming neighborhood consultations that placed the concept of outdoor commerce out of reach for most businesses and most neighborhoods.   Necessity opened our eyes and proved these programs could be done, and could be done well. 

In addition to permits becoming more streamlined, parking spaces were suddenly fair game for conversion into restaurant spaces. Cyclists, pedestrians, and diners alike learned to coexist, and this largely worked well.   

A Brighter Future

The success of Open Streets and their enthusiastic embrace by New Yorkers prompted Mayor de Blasio to announce that Open Streets will transition from a temporary to a permanent program. 

“Open Streets brought to scale strategies popular with DYI urbanists for some time. Looking to the future, one challenge is how to institutionalize and universalize their availability while keeping that original creative energy and experimentation alive. NYC is a mosaic of neighborhoods, ethnicities, economies, geographies—and Open Streets should exemplify that,” says John Shapiro, a professor in and the former chair of Pratt Institute’s Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment.

If Open Streets becomes a permanent program, do we really want bike lanes to traverse through the heart of a thriving restaurant scene? Will we still want to have loading and unloading occurring in travel lanes with the city humming at its usual pace and speed? Many things worked about the Open Streets Program, including:

  • Addressing the acute lack of space for exercise, play, and socialization, granting the ability to social distance while doing so;
  • Providing a lifeline to local businesses;
  • Enhancing a sense of community and streetscape activation;
  • Supporting active transportation (walking/biking);
  • Providing more neighborhood amenity while also reducing traffic speeds and activity along with reducing auto noise and improving air quality; and
  • Closing streets and expanding existing open space and cycle routes.

What has not worked includes:

  • A lack of a strategic plan that responds to demands and needs at a citywide and equitable scale.
  • Needing a maintenance partner such as a business improvement district often meant that only certain areas of districts benefited from the program.
  • Providing a readily available kit of parts that allows local businesses and communities to obtain needed equipment, signage, and supporting materials to deploy an Open Streets program.
  • Inconsistent approaches to how streets are closed and what infrastructure is used for their closing, as well as signage to inform all uses of the new activity on the street.
  • A network-based approach to the Open Streets and the complementary network evaluation of transportation requirements.
  • Unequal distribution of open streets mainly to business improvement districts, to restaurant rows, to (in effect) the more affluent and youth-oriented neighborhoods. These are also the neighborhoods with the most parks and other amenities, and not by and large the neighborhoods with the greatest need for COVID-19 relief. 
  • Conflicts between bikes and restaurants/sidewalk dining.
  • Inconsistency in design of pop-up spaces (different interpretation of guidance).
  • Low-durability construction materials and lack of maintenance.

For Open Streets to endure and provide access to open space and outdoor urban life, a program framework that clearly aligns the Open Streets program with communities’ needs could include:

  • A strategic vision for Open Streets that addresses civic and circulation needs, defines a network of open streets, redesigns or repurposes streets to ensure that conflicts are resolved, and an approach that develops temporary experiments to a more permanent, robust urban domain.
  • A curb and street management program to ensure that conflicts are resolved, curbs are accessible, and walking, cycling, transit, and deliveries can take place without friction between mobility needs and the activities.
  • A toolkit of parts for all types of neighborhood groups such as churches, institutions, senior centers, schools, and business improvement districts to use when applying for and then retrofitting a street for an Open Streets operation.
  • A framework for evaluating current Open Streets that includes considerations for schools, institutions, population density, activation potential, essential services, retail/commercial contexts, park space, and nighttime environments.
  • A streamlined permitting process so that outdoor dining, retail, arts and culture, or other uses can more easily and cost-effectively obtain approvals while still respecting the need for community consultation and allowing for continuing experimentation.
  • Funding to support Open Streets in higher-density neighborhoods that are underserved by parks and open space but where there are no business improvement districts—such as Bushwick in Brooklyn, Inwood in Manhattan, and Mott Haven in the South Bronx.

We’ve learned we like outdoor life—perhaps even more than we thought. As the city starts to come back to life, the Open Streets program needs to be updated and thoughtfully considered as a successful pilot that now needs to evolve into a permanent program. We have time to think through an approach that brings much-needed public space to neighborhoods that need it. If we work quickly, we can synchronize our efforts so that as the city returns to civic life and our residents, workers, and guests return, the Open Streets program is prepared to adapt to a more active and vibrant street environment, the kind that is only found in New York City.

TRENT LETHCO is a principal and Americas planning business leader, Arup, and a member of ULI New York. WILLIAM KELLY, executive director of the Village Alliance BID, and JOHN SHAPIRO, professor at Pratt Institute’s Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment, also contributed to this article.