The Green Team: Making Space in New York City

With the warmer weather, temporary public spaces pop up across New York City.

View of Park Avenue, looking north from Union Square. Summer Streets takes New York City streets and opens them up to people to play, walk, bike, and breathe. 

Courtesy New York City Department of Transportation Flickr Page

When people ask me what I do in New York, and I answer that I’m a landscape architect, the response almost always starts with an enthused “Oh, that’s so awesome/amazing/fun!” Then, a puzzled look“In the city?” While some savvy design folk assume my work is on rooftops, most picture more traditional public parks as my workplace. In a city that's growing denser every day, designing an unclaimed parcel of green public space is the exception. More likely than not, our firm’s projects re-organize and repurpose existing spaceand while most of these interventions are permanent, in the summertime, temporary conversions of public space become much more commonplace.

In May 2015, the Duane Street Parklet came to life between Greenwich and Hudson Streets with design help from our firm. Initiated by the owner of the adjacent coffee shop, Laughing Man Coffee and Tea, this 150-square-foot space was comprised of two parking spaces and was used prolifically throughout the summer by neighbors, café patrons, and tourists alike. Required concrete curbs and custom built planters helped to buffer this busy spot from vehicles, while artificial turf flooring and removable cedar benches created a small social oasis just a step away from the bustle of the adjacent sidewalk. The simple detailing and removable components made it easy to secure nightly and to store at the end of the warmer months. Installed as part of DOT’s Street Seats program, the parklet was a longer term iteration of PARK(ing) day, an international event that converts parking spaces into park space for one day each year. Reinstalled earlier this month, this neat little parklet and its counterparts are catalyzing public engagement and strengthening ties within a busy community.

Artificial turf, cedar planters and benches provide a valuable seating area for humans and dogs alike. 

Courtesy Mathews Nielsen

Participating in a community garden in New York can be a highly competitive experience, from being waitlisted for a garden plot to jockeying for coveted gate keys. Though there are many established gardens in the city, those looking for a little space to quickly grow a few flowers or vegetables may look for help from non-profits such as Green Guerillas and 596 Acres. 596 Acres identifies vacant city-owned lots throughout the five boroughs and walks local citizens through the proper channels to claim temporary use for community gardens. These slivers of orphaned land, generally byproducts of rectilinear property boundaries and half-forgotten development plans, become well-loved oases for city residents to grow their own food, make friends, and get their hands a little dirty. Some of these parcels eventually become permanent through lobbying (and a healthy amount of luck), while others serve the community for a year or more before being vacated for another purpose.  

Even more fleeting than temporary community gardens and seasonal parklets are Summer Streets and Play Streets, which close down city streets for pedestrian and community use. Summer Streets, now entering its fourth year, closes Park Avenue for several weekends each year. During these events, the bustling avenue, usually filled to the brim with cars, is instead filled with a motley crew of intrepid bikers of varied abilities, runners, temporary art installations, and other free events for both tourists and residents. Play Streets takes place more regularly on smaller residential streets throughout the summer, allowing children to play in a larger communal space and adults to gather for food and performances.  

Though the lives of these pedestrian-friendly spaces is counted in hours and weeks rather than years, they are no less valuable for their contribution to a precious pool of publicly accessible space. Paired with our continued care for the more traditional green parks, temporary public spaces help ensure that our city remains a welcoming and livable place for residents, both now and in the future.

Grace Lo, RLA, ASLA, LEED AP is a full-time practicing landscape architect at Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, a part-time yoga teacher and an aspiring plant nerd. A born and bred New Yorker, she has nine years of experience working on public, commercial and residential projects throughout the area and has a passion for involvement in urban revitalization in all shapes and forms. She received her BSLA from Cornell University.
This is one in a series of Metropolis blogs written by members of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects’ Green Team, which focuses on research as the groundswell of effective landscape design and implementation. Addressing the design challenges the Green Team encounters and how it resolves them, the series shares the team’s research in response to project constraints and questions that emerge, revealing their solutions. Along the way, the team also shares its knowledge about plants, geography, stormwater, sustainability, materials, and more.
Follow Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects on Twitter at @mathewsnielsen and Instagram at mathewsnielsen.

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