Streetbeat, Vol. XXVI
A new role, a public health recovery, and the economic benefits of parks.
And welcome to this newsletter.
It's where I (John Surico) share thoughts & writing each month on cities & their contents: streets, people, energy, cultures, food, form, etc. Thanks for being here, and hope you enjoy your time!
This month’s intro will be brief, as I battle a confluence of work-related tides. (Read: I am busy.) It’s great to see cities everywhere get back into their rhythms: sidewalks fuller, subway platforms stacked, restaurants abuzz. People are moving again. And we see it in the motions unfolding on our streets, generating kinetic energy as weathers warm. Sorry, I’ve been reading Ted Chiang, and his esoteric vibes have been on my mind.
That aside, I want to send a quick bravo to my fellow Transport & City Planning (TCP) cohort at University College London. After a-year-and-half long-delay, we were able to finally graduate together, robes and all. We celebrated with top-notch meals (of course), pub hangs, day trips and neighborhood walks, all with some stellar folks that we miss very dearly. It was the first time back in London since the end of 2020, and with time compressed nowadays, it feels like it’s been both a decade and a year since then. But anyway, yes! Congrats, friends.
Now, onto the news:
Announcing a residency…
Like so many other New Yorkers, Central Park is a dream to me. From an urbanist perspective, it’s a monumental achievement—an urban park that sees more people each year than Disney World. It’s one of my favorite places in the world for cycling, walking, running, and endlessly exploring, especially its northernmost reaches, like the Harlem Meer. Ange and I spent many of our first days together there, and we return whenever we can. Summerstage! Wollman Rink! Shakespeare in the Park! This is a space that knows no bounds.
So I’m thrilled to share that I’m joining the Central Park Conservancy’s Institute for Urban Parks as their scholar-in-residence. The title is very fancy—which we can thank my new boss/old friend/Institute Director Maura Lout for; Maura is also an avid Streetbeat reader who first floated the idea for a ‘Kita Monthly,’ so we all love Maura—but essentially I’ll be supporting the Institute’s decade-long work both city- and nationwide. Specifically, I’ll be helping to publicize Climate Lab, an important new initiative with Yale and the Natural Areas Conservancy to share best practices around urban park climate adaptability, and the New Parks Era, a vision for open space in New York City.
The first few weeks have been incredible, and I can’t wait to get more involved at what feels like a remarkably exciting yet consequential time for all spaces—public, green, blue, open, shared, etc. More soon!
Build back healthier
Speaking of parks: the pandemic, of course, reminded us all why ‘livability’—the somewhat generic term that can sound like a New Age alternative to Nineties-era ‘quality of life issues’—can actually be a matter of life or death. How ‘livable’ our communities actually are does, indeed, correlate with how they overcome 21st-century challenges, like the climate crisis and COVID-19.
Can you access public space within 10 minutes, to exercise, decompress or simply meet neighbors? Are there viable options for employment or education nearby? Can you get there? Are there daily stressors where you live, like traffic or crime or harassment? What about fresh air, or produce?All of this matters.
So in addition to an economic recovery, cities must undergo a public health recovery as well, reorienting their systems and designs to ensure that residents come out of this with more opportunities to boost mental and physical well-being than before. In my latest collab with PEAK Urban, the Oxford-based urban research initiative, practitioners who have been studying this long before 2020 outlined three key areas where city governments and citizens alike can make a difference: green space; multi-use streets; and community-led mutual aid.
Read more about their findings in this piece for WRI’s TheCityFix.
The results are in
Last month’s Solutions Corner was dedicated to my final project with Center for an Urban Future, which was a policy brief on re-engaging adult learners for the Center’s Economic Opportunity Lab. In short, we made the case that the new class of lawmakers in New York City should do everything they can to get residents with some college experience but no degree to graduate, using the Tennessee Reconnect model. (Read the summary here.) Not only would an effort help their job prospects—fwiw: the fastest-growing industries for well-paying jobs right now require some postsecondary credential—it’d also boost equity, as a majority of the 700,000 New Yorkers (or 14.3 of all working-age adults) who fall into this category are people of color.
Well, I am thrilled to share that our research was cited as the direct inspiration for a new proposal deemed ‘CUNY Reconnect.’ While details were scarce, City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, who announced it this week, promised help on the exact issues we outlined: financial aid, childcare, pre-enrollment services and scheduling. (It builds off of LaGuardia Community College’s new Credits for Success initiative, which also mentioned our report.)
This initiative would be the first of its kind in the CUNY system. Now let’s see what happens in budget negotiations these next few months.
I get a lot of questions about the 31st Ave Open Street.
I first started reporting the Bloomberg CityLab article that jolted my participation about a year ago now. And I think all the Collective volunteers can agree: it’s been a ride. But it’s changed my life, in ways I couldn’t imagine then. Joining the effort to create a weekend pop-up public space was definitely something I had never done before: to fully enter a story I was reporting on, transcending the role of its teller into an active participant in it. Journalists are repeatedly told to not break that fourth wall—and, honestly, I still ask myself daily whether I made the right decision. But my reasoning: if I saw this work firsthand, I’d be able to write on these issues from a position of experience, rather than sideline-gazing. (Also, I don’t know about you, but the pandemic sort of blew up fourth walls for me.)
So with that, I’m happy to announce the new OSA (Open Streets Announcement) section, where each month, I’ll detail just how we’re turning two city blocks into a community hub. At its best, I hope this yields some insights for folks interested in doing the same where they live, even if it’s at a more granular level, and at its worst, it’ll convince you to come visit.
On that note: the Collective has had a busy hibernation. We launched a successful community feedback survey. We redesigned our website. We created a newsletter. And we got to work stacking the calendar with regular programming. This is an essential piece of permanence: people take a space more seriously when they expect something to always be going on. The results: a first-in-Astoria urban farm stand run by The Connected Chef (every Saturday), a book fair and club from The Rolling Library (first and last Sundays), a pet meetup and fair (second Sundays), and a vendor market in support of the Astoria Food Pantry (every third Sunday). But these programmers didn’t show up overnight; it took a year of legitimate operation to convince the public that we were here to stay and much better than year one, when users felt unsafe. We then had to promote it as a place available for convening.
And finally, we’re entering the launch this weekend with more tangible streetscape changes ahead of us. In mid-April, the city will install planters at each corner, not only beautifying the block but also partially relieving the need for barriers. An on-street bike corral is en route, as are official ‘No Parking’ signs. And in July, we’ll host the Oonee Mini (which I’ve mentioned here before) on its citywide tour. All of these amenities add character to the area while also taking yet another duty off the plate of volunteers, like enforcing parking rules.
If city planners want communities to be active partners in rethinking their streets, they have to be given the ability to get creative. That means reducing barriers, allocating resources, and helping to promote where possible. There are challenges, no doubt—I’m still uneasy about a business walk-through we did, which certainly didn’t garner 100% support—but we learned last year that progress is incremental, and each weekend is a reset button at getting the public’s attention. Here’s to seeing what this first month of version 3.0 holds.
City in Spotlight: Oxford
While in London, we had the pleasure of taking a day trip to Oxford, the small city where we spent nine months for Angela’s MSc program in Migration Studies. (And, formally, where Streetbeat was born.) Oxford holds a very special place in our hearts and lives: not only is it where we spent the first wave of COVID—which, to me, marks an eternal bond—but it’s also a mythical place. (If you’ve watched His Dark Materials or know Tolkien, you may understand this more.) And not to mention it’s a pretty idyllic 15-minute city.
That all aside, what I was excited about was Oxford’s ZEZ: the Zero Emissions Zone. As of last month, Oxford is now home to Britain’s first ZEZ, which means that on a few blocks in its historic center, any gas-emitting car must pay a fee. The pilot goes beyond London’s ULEZ (Ultra Low Emissions Zone), which charges older, polluting cars that don’t meet a certain efficiency threshold. Oxford is now one of the smallest cities to enact such a policy in the world. (CityLab did a good story on what that means.)
The response, of course, has been mixed. While I was there, I saw a few cars disobeying the signs, although they are brand new. The coverage area is also a grand total of four or five blocks, two of which already don’t allow cars. Some critics have said that the city isn’t doing enough to boost alternatives, like buses or cycling, while taxi companies and businesses say it hurts their bottomline—marking the clear battlegrounds of the electricity fights to come.
But still, the city is moving ahead. The effort complements many of its pandemic-era pedestrianizations nearby, and, I think, forces users to confront a question important to a lot of other cities: in areas of historical significance, which is worth a lot in Oxford, why were vehicles—polluting ones, for that matter—ever allowed on these streets in the first place?
Solutions Corner: Parks for the Greater Good
Given recent park pivots for me, I thought it’d only be fitting to dedicate this month’s section to Trust for Public Land’s new report: ‘The Economic Benefits of Parks in New York City.”
In addition to their advocacy, TPL has long been putting out some of the best research on parks and access in the country: their yearly ParkScore, conducted for so long by my now colleague, the great Charlie McCabe, gave cities grades for their parks system, most notably how much of the population lives within 10 minutes of a green space. (Although I have some issues with that measurement.)
But this one was particularly pertinent: when I first started researching parks in 2017, it became clear that there were so many known qualitative studies on the benefits of parks, but little quantitative data to back them up. (This is why we had to produce a lot of it ourselves for “A New Leaf.”) It’s not that those studies aren’t factual; it’s just that more intangible concepts, like a park’s effect on your mental health, can be difficult to discern. Parks departments and nonprofits also have limited resources to do that kind of work. Not having that data—neoliberal narrator voice: “especially when it involves dollars”—just makes the pitch to policymakers and the public that much harder.
With that being said, now we have some numbers from TPL—and so I’ll quickly go through the three categories mentioned in the report:
1. On Physical Health:
Parks keep us active. If you live closer to a park, you’re much more likely to stretch your legs, go for a run, cycle, or the like. And that has value.
TPL found that parks added $9.1 billion in recreation savings for users, or an average of $17 per visit, with 527 million visits to parks estimated in total. Fitness machines; hikes (and there’s plenty of good ones in NYC); playgrounds for kids—you name it, that’s something that you’re not paying for, which means it’s money back in your pocket. And that has public health implications: over $1.14 billion in health care savings were estimated in parks, for the over million residents who report using them to meet the CDC guidelines of 150 minutes a week for physical activity.
Like street trees, parks cool us down. TPL has found that neighborhoods 10 minutes from a park are 6 degrees cooler than those that are not. That’s countless less people who don’t have to go to the hospital or ER for heat stress related illnesses, which saves our frontline workers a lot of time and money.
2. On Environmental Health
Parks heal the planet. Sure you’ve heard this before, but parks are critical to climate resilience—as mentioned, they cool, they absorb, and they mitigate. They’re like natural sponges for both the polluters and the polluted. And with that comes immense benefits.
First, TPL found up to $2.43 billion in stormwater savings. Rather than water going into our pipes and waterways—which leads to combined sewer overflow (CSOs), where our waste leaks into our water supply—water is getting absorbed by all the green. And that’s a bunch of less gallons we don’t have to pay to treat for nitrogen and other pollutants.
The other big one is air pollution. If you remember high school chemistry, plants and flowers take in fine particulate matter and ground ozone (not to mention carbon!), which cause things like lung cancer, asthma, and other respiratory ailments, and spit out oxygen. Parks are literally saving our lives, and we’re better because of it—$20.3 million and $6.2 million saved, respectively.
3. On Economic Health
And finally, parks are economic engines. Think about the crowds they draw for concerts, events, and games. Or even the more micro-scale, as one of the only true free public spaces for burgeoning groups or entrepreneurs. All of that has an impact—on jobs, on livelihoods, on homes. (Yes, we’ll talk about property value.)
So, let’s start with tourism. TPL found that parks bring in $17.9 billion from visits that are related in some way to outdoor activity. This is the family who visits New York to see a Yankees game (on parkland), the friends group who goes to Governors’ Ball (on parkland), even the celebrities who fly in to sit court-side at the U.S. Open (on parkland).
We mentioned this before, but so many folks exercise in parks—shout-out to my dad, who’s now an avid pickle-baller in eastern Queens’ Alley Pond Park! And that means they’re probably using some sort of equipment they bought locally. In total, that’s $680 million spent annually in the ‘outdoor recreation economy,’ which TPL says supports at least 479 stores and close to 4,500 employees.
And finally, yes, property value. (I shrug this one off more because it connotes themes of ‘green gentrification’—a divisive issue.) If your apartment or home is within 500 feet of the park, as you’ll typically see advertised by real estate brokers, that pays dividends. TPL estimates over $15.2 billion in increased property value, with $101 million in annual tax revenues for the city.
In other words: parks are cash cows. While these figures are contained to New York, the themes and patterns hold resonance for urban parks everywhere. But most importantly, the pursuit of this data could prove just as powerful where you live, and for the parks you love.
Bright Side: Pop-Up Sidewalk Amenities
I’m a sucker for modular design, if honoring a neat parklet every month wasn’t a clear clue. (See below.) So when I saw Jason Thorne, a head planner in Hamilton, Ontario, post these retractable sidewalk bar tables online, I knew I had to include it. Especially as New York edges ever closer to legalizing to-go drinks. Hello, spring and summer :)
Parklet of the Month, March 2022 Edition
Name: Tawakal Halal Cafe (East Boston)
What: A customizable, open-sourced parklet design, where customers can pick herbs for their dishes from the pots hanging above.
FKA: A loading zone.
I’ve been a big fan of CultureHouse since I first interviewed founder Aaron Greiner a few years ago. The nonprofit has a novel concept: take vacant storefronts, add some place-making, and create a temporary space that draws people in until a tenant is found, all at the landlord’s behest. (This was before the pandemic, too.) I reconnected with Greiner recently, and was not surprised to find out that they’ve had their work cut out for them these last two years. I highlighted their work with the Somerville Public Library before, building outdoor free WiFi zones. But this time, this outdoor dining parklet deserves credit. CultureHouse posted its exact how-to guide online for everyone to see.
Want to shout out a parklet where you live? Submit yours here.
Streetbeat Gig Board
Jobs! We’ve got jobs, people!
Open Plans, the public space nonprofit and big Streetbeat fans, are looking for a communications director.
Partnerships for Parks, an organization that helps foster grassroots organizing in parks, has a ton of jobs available.
THE CITY, an outlet that has partially restored my faith in local journalism, is on the hunt for a reporter.
Have a job to post? Submit it here.