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These award-winning proposals will tackle the city's public space inequity

The Design Trust for Public Space’s Public for All winners will address need in the city’s public plazas and provide South Bronx residents a forum in the development of underutilized city-owned land

Port Morris and Mott Haven have suffered decades of environmental injustice. One of the winning proposals wants to help end that.
Flickr/Dan DeLuca

Call us biased, but New York City has some of the best public outdoor space in the country. But the sad truth of it is that not all of the city’s parks and greenways are created, or cared for, equally. There are myriad forces at play that affect how some of the city’s parks—like Central or Prospect Park—are cared for versus others—Flushing Meadows-Corona Park—but some folks want to ensure that the playing field becomes a little more level. (Get the pun?)

The Design Trust for Public Space is, as its name suggests, one such organization. In the past, Design Trust has helped launch initiatives to create a new master plan for Staten Island’s neglected Eib’s Pond Park, reimagine the green space of the Lower East Side’s Lillian Wald Houses, and the list goes on. The trust is now turning its focus to two projects that have claimed the top spots in its 2017 Call For Project Ideas. The winning proposals both lay the groundwork for ways to activate public spaces to reach their fullest potential—and who doesn’t love a well cared for space everyone can share?

The first winning proposal focuses on ways to reactivate and sustain some of the city’s 70 pedestrian plazas, over half of which are in underserved communities. Under the current system, the DOT’s Plaza Program is responsible for securing funds to build the plazas before they’re handed over to community partners who care for them. “By many measures, the program is a success—improving public safety, community events, and civic engagement,” a brief for the project reads. “But in economically distressed communities, plaza management faces many challenges,” like public intoxication, illegal dumping, and plant vandalism.

The initiative will funnel resources to the 125th Street Plaza—whose plaza partnering manager is one of the project proposers—while also looking for ways to improve on 14 of the city’s other plazas in need of maintenance and upgrades.

The second winning proposal comes from South Bronx Unite (along with a bunch of other partners) who are striking back against decades of environmental abuse in the area that’s been brought on by power plants, waste transfer stations, and companies like FreshDirect whose new distribution plant, Dissent Magazine notes, will add 1,000 truck trips per day to an area already choked with air pollution.

The proposal centers around a Community Land Trust, a nonprofit where a group of people own and manage land, that will help to empower residents of Mott Haven and Port Morris to have a say in the use of the neighborhoods’ underutilized space. The proposal also calls for the creation of a platform that makes it easier for community members to understand and see how they could benefit from the land.

In a May 2016 profile of South Bronx Unite, Dissent Magazine reports that the organization has already formed the Community Land Trust, but has yet to acquire any properties—however, it has its eyes on two city-owned vacant sites. Under the CLT, development on sites it owns would have to be led or approved by members of the trust.

"The impact of these projects can be very powerful,” says José Serrano-McClain, Neighborhood Innovation Labs program lead at the NYC Mayor’s Office of Tech + Innovation.

“They both have a clear strategy for how they scale citywide. South Bronx United's deep connections to the networks of organizations that are advancing community land trusts throughout the city can help accelerate the movement citywide. Similarly, the work of Uptown Grand Central and Neighborhood Plaza Partnership to experiment with new ways to maintain and program public plazas in deeply empathetic and inclusive ways, especially in the context of a housing and mental health crisis in our city, seem especially urgent. This is precisely the time that we need to imaginatively renegotiate the complexities of sharing public space.”

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