- October 29, 2020
Dear Michael Sorkin,
As I write this, over 8.6 million people have contracted COVID-19 and over 224,000 have died in the United States due to the virus1 Every death is devastating – yours especially. Following your untimely passing in March, I wanted to honor your legacy by revisiting your writings and lectures. At a moment when civic life is deeply challenged, your ideas strike a timely and prescient chord: Prosperous cities depend upon the enrichment of their local communities.
Now, it’s our duty – as architects, designers, and urban citizens – to build upon your foundation and carry it forward: How can we design our way toward a more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable public sphere?
Reflecting on this question brought back a memory that I imagine you would appreciate. It’s one of the final days of Summer in 2012. I’ve just moved to the city, a hopelessly wide-eyed undergrad at NYU. From my dorm room overlooking Washington Square Park I can hear the bluesy trill of a trumpet. Dusk sets in and Greenwich Village awakens for the night. Venturing into the park with a friend, we’re drawn towards a crowd clumped around the fountain. A patchwork of musicians are jamming while everyone else sings along. Loud, merrily, all together now. I get the feeling this is both impromptu and totally regular. Here in the park, perfect strangers can be close friends, if only for a night.
Eight years later, the pandemic has destabilized and, in turn, reawakened the essentiality of urban public life. Following the outbreak in March, spontaneous, communal moments like the one in Washington Square Park were halted. For many months, as the virus tore through the city and life was restricted to the confines of one’s home, NYC didn’t feel like itself. A place without its people, a body without a soul. Today, as the city cautiously reopens, new policies and initiatives are attempting to revive the spirit of the city by reshaping the potential of its streets. From how we move around to how we convene, NYC is morphing before our eyes.
A reaction to the virus’s crippling economic toll, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on September 25 that the Open Restaurants pilot program would be made a permanent fixture. This initiative grants restaurants and bars the option to expand outdoor seating space on to the street in front of their property, repurposing parking spaces for communal gathering. In addition, the ongoing Open Streets program has closed certain blocks to traffic on weekends. Walking down these car-free streets, one gets the sense of a new vitality, a city reincarnated. Michael, I wish you were here to see it. The optimistic signs of public space bubbling with activity, a sharp contrast to the ghost town energy of several months back, bring much-needed hope.
That being said, while these are important first steps, they should not lead us to complacency. Rather, these initiatives open the door to a new realm of possibilities: How can we extend the programs further? How many streets can we turn into pedestrian plazas? Why limit ourselves to the weekends? What subsidies can the city provide to ensure all local businesses benefit from these new initiatives? What processes can we institute to give the public a say in which streets become pedestrianized? In a city where the ratio of residents to private automobiles is vastly disproportionate, this reclaiming of the streets for the people is seriously overdue.
What remains largely unexplored are the extensive benefits the Open Streets program could provide to residential blocks if rolled out permanently and at scale, a topic you explored in Twenty Minutes in Manhattan.2 Car-free, or reduced lane residential streets, can create the space for a vast array of activities, from improved waste management, community gardens, playspaces for children, bicycle storage, street furniture, local business opportunities, events and programming, the list goes on.
Underlying these shifts is a critical point: Design is (has always been) political. It’s the substance and systems that shape our lives. The design of the built environment mediates where we encounter each other, who among us can engage, and the quality of that shared experience. For this reason, when we design, it’s our obligation to continually ask ourselves who benefits? Who is left behind? Does our work reinforce societal disparities, injustice, and fragmentation or actively reroute our path towards understanding, mutual aid, and connection? Or, as you so aptly put it:
“Propinquity – neighborliness – is the ground and problem of democracy.”
Michael Sorkin, Traffic in Democracy3
As we navigate the next chapter in the history of the city, it’s clear that this moment holds unbelievable potential for meaningful, lasting progress. A chance for us to make an impact that will transform the lifestyle of New Yorkers well beyond our own time. It remains absolutely central to our charge as citizen-designers to pick up your mantle and fight for a city that puts community first.
Ian Beckman Reagan