New York is resilient, but only if it adapts

Photos by: Denys Nevozhai / Unsplash

The following appeared in Crain’s New York on 9/9/2020. 

There has been much debate lately about whether New York City is “dead,” and of course it isn’t.

But it is true that, even before Covid-19, we were long overdue for looking at the city with fresh eyes and developing new mechanisms for improving the day-to-day experience of living and working here. Now, with the meteoric and here-to-stay rise of remote work, wariness toward urban density and the loss of so many traditional drivers of New York’s appeal, the city unquestionably needs to evolve to tip the cost-benefit analysis of city vs. suburban or smaller-city living back in New York’s favor.

In the past few months, we have observed the success and popularity of the city’s Open Streets and Open Restaurants pilots. These innovative initiatives should be just the beginning of a new vision for improving the quality of day-to-day life for New Yorkers that seeks to include the ingenuity and entrepreneurialism of New Yorkers themselves.

How?

Start with approved pilot programs for community-improvement concepts and take it from there based on performance.

For example, what if we enabled any residential block in the city, pending agreement from all its property owners, to choose to make only one side of the street legal for parking? The other would be turned into open space for one year. If successful at the end of the year, the change could be made permanent with plantings or park benches.

Here’s another idea: Create a legal template for residential blocks to voluntarily combine their individual yards into one large communal area with smaller yards for each building. This means mimicking some of the appeal of suburban living, allowing families and children to stretch out a bit more without needing to hoof it to a park. You’ll find neighborhoods dotted around cities such as New Orleans that do this wonderfully.

As folks rely more on cars for transit (at least for the near term until all those amazing bikeways are built), and delivery trucks for goods and groceries, congestion is fast returning to city streets. What if we equipped micro-business communities with approved pilots to manage curb use and the aggravating congestion that often comes along with it? Curbside management technology is being piloted in other cities across the U.S., and it serves as an example of where New York’s startup community can be tapped to help lead the way in improving how we strategically and systematically use our streets.

If even just a few blocks piloted concepts like these, the results could be transformative and make the case for others to follow suit. We’ve seen this type of thinking work through our own Urban Tech Hub at Company, which regularly pilots innovative ideas to help strengthen our city.

My challenge to the city: Put forward five pilots with guidance by the end of the year and have communities test them (if they so choose) and form a consensus. Then capitalize on platforms, such as Neighborhood Challenge, which is operated by the city’s Small Business Services Department, to share guidelines for and encourage the submission of additional pilot concepts for approval.

Of course, innovative pilots cannot solve all our challenges. Strategies for reviving business, safeguarding our schools, addressing homelessness, pursuing social justice and so much more are all desperately needed.

But I do believe the answers to the challenges of making day-to-day living in the city’s various communities as enjoyable as possible are in those same communities—let’s draw them out.

By creating approved mechanisms for city residents to take it upon themselves to reimagine and improve their communities, we can empower our more solutions-oriented residents while offloading some of the burden of driving political consensus for citywide initiatives.

New York City is resilient, and it will bounce back from the pandemic—but only if it adapts.

It’s about time it did.