New York Restoration Project (NYRP) commends the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and the American Institute of Architects New York (AIANY) for the 'Big Ideas for Small Lots NYC' important competition. Our need for more affordable housing is dire.
However, we believe this competition should be open to proposals for other uses. Communities throughout New York City need many kinds of services, not only housing. Many of these properties are in extremely dense, urban neighborhoods that would benefit greatly from more open space. There are important needs for safety, healthy community ties, and agency over decision-making, which community-run open spaces can provide.
Community-run, green open spaces can literally save lives. NYRP recently commissioned a rigorous, independent study into green space investments as a strategy to improve quality of life and support social capital in historically underserved communities in New York City. The results were startling. The study found that neighborhoods with high NYRP activity – more active, well-managed green spaces – had 213 fewer felonies per year (per 40,000 residents). These findings were supported by another recent study published in the Journals of the American Medical Association (July 20, 2018) linking green space with reduced crime and improved public health. The study was a Philadelphia-based experiment that cleaned up and greened vacant lots while leaving others as they were. Over three years, crime went down where the lots had been managed, and astonishingly people living near those lots reported a huge decrease in feelings of depression and worthlessness (more than 50%).
Eric Klinenberg, Director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, argues in his book “Palaces for the People” that communities should make greater investments in social infrastructure, like libraries and community gardens, for people to form connections with one another, create networks, bond, and interact. Klinenberg argues that when social infrastructure is strong, neighborhoods flourish and communities become more resilient. When social infrastructure is weak people turn inward and become isolated, resulting in catastrophes like the increased number of deaths in neighborhoods without strong communal bonds during the 1995 heat wave in Chicago that killed more than 700 people citywide.
Housing and open space should not be considered an either-or proposition. Both are needed, and that’s why we invite HPD and AIANY to open this competition to proposals for how to use these lots for a range of communal uses.