New York City’s Open Streets Programme

New York City’s Open Streets Programme is closed to many who need it the most, writes Amy Howden-Chapman.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 1 million New Yorkers could not access a park within 10 minutes’ walk from their homes. Like millions of other New Yorkers, I live in an apartment with no garden or balcony. To stay sane and get through the stress and sadness of the pandemic, I needed to be able to spend time outdoors – to see the sky.

In March, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would close some streets to cars and allow them to be “open” to residents so people could use their street like they would a front yard. However, the initial Open Streets pilot programme consisted of just four streets (1.6 miles) to serve a city of over 8 million residents. The pilot programme lasted just over a week. People were not using the space, and the lack of success was not just because of scale or convenience. While fear and uncertainty about contracting COVID-19 was palpable (the sounds of ambulances dominated day and night), the city’s parks were nevertheless packed. Advocates pointed out that it wasn’t just crowding or fear of COVID that prevented people using the pop-up open spaces, it was also the heavy police presence.

For decades, there has been a strained relationship between the NYPD and many ordinary New Yorkers, especially those from communities of colour. During the pandemic, the notoriously  racist “stop and frisk” dynamics seemed to be playing out once more in the uneven enforcement of social distancing. Of 40 people arrested for social-distancing violations in Brooklyn, 35 were Black, four were Hispanic, and only one was white.

In May, the city rolled out a new and more extensive 100-mile version of the Open Streets programme. This time, except for the NYPD’s role in installing the Open Streets, officers would not be present. Prior to COVID, street fairs or similar events always required the presence of NYPD officers. Now, although precipitated by a crisis, New Yorkers have greater control over  their own street space. However, citizens were quick to point out that a majority of Open Streets were located in the city’s wealthier, whiter neighbourhoods.

As the pandemic rages on, so does public debate over what it would take for people colour to be safe. After the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, tens of thousands of New Yorkers took to the streets to demand racial justice. For many, the blue police barricades that closed off an Open Street became a different type of symbol, one of control and repression. As protestors chanted “Black Lives Matter”, they also chanted “Whose streets? Our Streets.”

Despite recent efforts to increase equity in where Open Streets are set up, the racial gap still remains. There are also inequities around how Open Streets are maintained. One New Yorker cycled to all the Open Streets in Brooklyn and concluded that the programme was “structurally racist”, noting not only that there were more Open Streets set up in predominantly white neighbourhoods but that 70 percent of streets in white neighbourhoods were installed properly compared with just 12 percent in predominantly non-white neighbourhoods.

Is the NYPD failing to install Open Streets in neighbourhoods of colour? If so, then this inaction is likely to be compounded by the lack of capacity for neighbours to install Open Streets themselves. People of colour are more likely to have worked as essential workers through the crisis, they are more likely to have lost loved ones from the virus, and they are more likely to have fallen sick. It is now the dog days of summer in New York City, and the threats posed by the COVID-19 crisis are being exacerbated by the climate crisis. As severe heat alerts are issued weekly, the ability to spend time outside in the shade is not just a mental health necessity – it can be life saving. Every person should be able to access a local Open Street and to be free from discrimination and harassment when they do so.