The Connected Communities Initiative at NYCHA
By Delma Palma
The New York City Housing Authority is working to update its urban design approach to comprehensively address the community connectivity of its more than 300 public housing developments across New York City.
The best examples of urban design worldwide today prove that community connectivity—the ease with which residents in a community interact with one another and the quality of the spaces available for those interactions—has a major impact on the way people live. Green spaces and pedestrian-friendly streets promote safety, walkability, and community.
The original design of New York City’s public housing was a response to the deplorable conditions of tenement living. They were created to provide air, light, and running water for the working class of the 1930s and were designed to be “the lungs of the city” in a time when overcrowded living conditions were the norm.
When these “tower-in-the-park” developments were erected on mega-blocks with large open areas and repetitive architecture, the issue of connectivity to the rest of the city was not a priority—mainly because the public housing developments provided a haven from the urban problems of tenement neighborhoods. Today, those original designs are quite conspicuous within the urban fabric, often interrupting the architectural character and street grid entirely, and connectivity is a challenge due to decisions made almost a century ago.
To further complicate the issue, federal disinvestment impacted NYCHA significantly through the decades, and residential buildings were prioritized over open spaces as funding for maintenance and operations steadily declined. When New York City’s crime spiked through the 1980s, chain-link or steel-bar fencing became the go-to solution in order to deter dangerous activity on the expansive NYCHA grounds. Needless to say, this defensive design approach further isolated the campuses and reinforced the perception of public housing developments as dangerous places, even though crime rates have dramatically decreased since the early 1990s.
Other urban housing authorities outside New York have chosen to demolish their public housing stock and rebuild. As NYCHA houses over half a million New Yorkers (and maintains an extensive waitlist), it requires a solution that preserves its existing buildings while still promoting quality urban design.
NYCHA’s new Connected Communities initiative seeks to make big changes to better connect NYCHA residents physically so they may benefit socially, psychologically, and economically. Research has shown the negative effects feelings of isolation within a community can have on mental health. Data also show the benefits of quality green spaces and improved pedestrian pathways on physical health. Neighborhoods that have safe spaces to congregate and socialize foster stronger social cohesion. The Connected Communities initiative is a design approach to holistically benefit the 1 in 14 New Yorkers who call NYCHA home.
NextGeneration NYCHA, the Housing Authority’s 10-year strategic plan to preserve and protect public housing, outlines a roadmap to safe, clean, and connected communities. Most importantly, it includes strategies to utilize partnerships for improvements that would not otherwise be possible through the capital budget. The Connected Communities initiative will elevate NYCHA’s urban design practices and help activate NYCHA grounds through interventions on edges, pathways, and open spaces. This will help better connect residents to a city full of resources and opportunities beyond the borders of their developments.
With over 2,400 acres of land in its portfolio, NYCHA recognizes that each development has a unique population with unique needs. A development in Coney Island is inherently different from one in in East Harlem, and any design intervention should respond to the specific site and its community. Further, transparent and inclusive resident engagement is an important part of any design intervention aimed at improving resident quality of life. The partnerships developed through the Connected Communities initiative will ensure onsite interventions are site-appropriate and supported by the community.
One project already underway through the Connected Communities initiative is “Opening the Edge” at Wald Houses. In partnership with the Design Trust for Public Space, this project envisions a performance and gathering space on an open and underutilized area of a NYCHA development abutting a commercial avenue on the Lower East Side. The Design Trust engaged the residents for multiple years to co-design a space that fulfilled a need in their community. The project has been featured by the Municipal Arts Society of New York for its “civic engagement that creatively empowers individuals to shape their built environment.”
Rendering of “Opening the Edge” at Wald Houses. Construction is set to commence in fall of 2019.
Other past partners have included the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Department of Environmental Protection, and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. NYCHA will continue to partner with more city agencies, community-based organizations, and private entities interested in investing in the design of quality spaces on public housing sites. Residents are also encouraged to seek out potential partnerships that could lead to improvements for their communities. The Fund for Public Housing, NYCHA’s non-profit organization, has provided a venue for private philanthropy and a platform for crowdfunding for potential urban design interventions (Ideas Marketplace).
As NYCHA implements an increasing number of urban design projects through the Connected Communities initiative, the bar will be raised for the quality of the public realm at all developments in New York. NYCHA residents should be able to initiate, inform, and enjoy good urbanism whenever they step outside their doors regardless of where they live in New York City.
Delma Palma is an Enterprise Design Innovation Fellow and a licensed architect and urban designer in the Capital Projects Division of the New York City Housing Authority with experience in affordable and public housing design.