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New York City Public Realm

The mayor of New York had promised its people the greenest, greatest city in the world. To do this, the Department of Transport needed experience, inspiration and concrete tools to reimagine New York as a sustainable city on a human scale.

finding1Our projects and rigorous research worldwide have given us a solid platform for gathering the knowledge and developing the expertise needed to make cities for people. New York was a city dominated by car culture, and the infrastructure and systems were out of date. The Department of Transport wanted to reduce traffic, increase cycling and walking, and improve public life.

A 21st Century Mandate

Creating a new perspective demands new tools for planners. In New York there were no hard facts and figures about what people did and experienced on the streets. How and where do they walk? How do they spend their time on the streets? None of this had ever been measured in the city before, so we started with our trademark Public Space/Public Life survey – a unique way of measuring how people use city spaces and examining the relationship between the built environment and people’s quality of life.


There are very few places for people to sit and rest, meet and interact or people-watch along the streets of New York City.

We identified and analyzed key areas in the city, gathering the data crucial to setting new goals. Our first survey was an eye-opener in terms of who uses the streets and how they use them. We discovered that only 10% of the people on the streets were children and seniors. That 90% of the space in Times Square was for cars, yet 90% of the people there were pedestrians. This was an equation that needed to change

Only 10% of pedestrians identified at our survey sites were children or seniors (under 14 or over 65 years old), although these groups account for a combined 30% of New York’s population

finding2Changing the Mindset

The survey gave us the baseline data to set new targets. These were at the core of the ‘World Class Streets’ report published in 2008, envisioning the transformation of existing spaces with people-centered design, and creating a new way to move in the city. This analysis helped pave the way for a network of bikes lanes to connect the surrounding boroughs, and provided experience that a change as simple as moving bike lanes onto the other side of parallel parking makes walking and cycling safer and more pleasurable.

This was the kind of initiative we recommended in the ambitious and far-reaching strategy we helped the city shape. But we also know from experience that changes that affect people’s daily routine often meet resistance. Our report provided the hard facts and concrete data for the city to make changes, and initiated a series of highly visible, quick-to-make and affordable pilot projects. These targeted interventions gave New Yorkers the chance to see and experience iconic locations like Times Square, Broadway and Herald Square differently. Our fresh yet experienced perspective provided insight into the potential of spaces that weren’t yet places, like Worth Square near Madison Square Park. Our process of creating places for people through a ‘measure, test, refine’ approach fit perfectly with the city’s approach to try things out and meet urgent deadlines for policy change. We trained the city to measure people oriented indicators before and after these changes to do more of what works, tweak what doesn’t and meet fear of change with concrete data analysis.

Places for People

In Summer 2008 Broadway between Times Square and Herald Square was transformed by the flagship ‘Broadway Boulevard’ pilot. We upgraded the welcome mat we wanted to roll out for the people of New York to a red carpet. Literally overnight the major squares on Broadway from uptown to downtown were closed to traffic and temporary furniture was moved in. The positive response from New Yorkers was instant. And they were involved. Because as well as giving people the tools and skills to measure, test and refine ideas and designs at street level, one of our key services is facilitating inclusive communication. Behind the scenes in New York we talked to people across city departments and community groups face-to-face, getting people to meet each other and getting people on board. Making it clear why people should care. Making it everybody’s business.


— Summer Streets event

World Class Streets

So far 400,000 square meters of space in the heart of Manhattan have been reclaimed from traffic for people. They’ve moved out of their homes and offices and onto the streets, at the same time as cars are moving faster then they were before. It works. 86% more people stop up – meet, sit down, talk or people watch – and 26% more leave their offices for breaks. There are more plants, more places to sit and more cyclists. The life previously extinguished by traffic has been given the space to emerge.

We continue to bring inspiration and international best practices to our long-term partnership with the city of New York. We provide the data, arguments and ideas for thinking of streets as spaces and unlocking their potential – for changing the mindset. And through our Public Space/Public Life survey and the pilot projects it generated we’ve created a feedback loop enabling the city to make a change, measure how it works, then redefine the design.

Now it’s time to move from pilot to permanence – to make a lasting change and investment on the streets of New York. In 2015 Times Square will be the first of the key pilot locations to be completely and permanently transformed, putting the creation of people-centered spaces in New York on the city map for good. The Department of Design and Construction is now implementing the permanent design produced by the Norwegian architect firm Snøhetta.

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Status: Built
Location: New York, NY, US
Firm Role: Consultant
Additional Credits: Mayor's Office of New York, Transportation Alternatives, Snøhetta