How can public housing campuses in New York City become places that promote a sense of belonging, enjoyment, comfort, safety, and pride? In an op-ed in the Daily News, Rebecca Karp and Nicholas Bloom discuss the promise of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA)’s Connected Communities Guidebook, a roadmap for holistically addressing urban design issues at NYCHA campuses. Rebecca and Nicholas reflect on the Guidebook and make the case for its model of public housing—one that is driven by community needs and principled on well-designed open space and social connections.
The Rebirth NYCHA Needs Now
This article originally appeared in The Daily News on September 17, 2020
NYCHA housing in Brownsville, Brooklyn. (Theodore Parisienne/for New York Daily News)
Few New Yorkers probably know that NYCHA, in its original formation, was supposed to be a bastion of public health, a refuge from a city where death and disease — tuberculosis most notably — were existential threats for tenement dwellers.
They’d be forgiven for not knowing its public health origins: Today’s pandemic, while not TB, has been especially devastating to lower-income New Yorkers, and rather than showcasing the original intention of New York’s public housing, has only put a finer point on a crisis that has been mounting at NYCHA for decades. It’s unfortunate that living in NYCHA buildings provides no additional health benefits for today’s residents, given the fact that they have many characteristics that could theoretically make them safer, like lower than average population density, windows in every room, central heating plants and lots of green space surrounding residential buildings. So what accounts for this discrepancy? We can attribute it, in part, to chronic neglect of critical housing maintenance. But that’s far from the whole story. While we must address the more than $40 billion in capital repairs required to bring the Authority back to a state of good repair, we need more than a reactive plan. At long last, with the release of its Connected Communities Guidebook, NYCHA has put forth a compelling roadmap not just for vision but for execution. These new design guidelines will serve as a critical tool for all future construction, repair, design and open space projects across the authority’s portfolio—incorporated as key priorities to guide all RFPs for the expansion and restoration of NYCHA campuses.
The Guidebook offers a new set of equity-focused, community-driven guidelines for improving the living experience of NYCHA residents — among whom are many of the essential workers who have carried our city through the COVID crisis — with well-designed open spaces, modern playgrounds, deeper integration with surrounding neighborhoods, new community facilities, and sensitive redevelopment that can provide more housing at a time when homelessness in NYC is at an all-time high.
It addresses two crucial human needs: open space so that people feel safe outside, as well as spaces where people can feel connected to their community for the sake of social and emotional wellbeing.
More usable outdoor space can improve the lives of children, adults, and seniors — who, under current conditions, are too often forced to shelter in their apartments for lack of safe, available common areas. And we should not think of that open space as existing within a silo. NYCHA’s grounds should be knit into the city. As the Regional Plan Association has suggested, there are several places in which NYCHA and public parks can combine to provide greater value to communities. The result of many hours of inter-agency workshops and resident meetings, the Guidebook is equally, if not more, commendable for the process it took to get there.
Driven by resident and community ideas and leadership, it does more than perhaps has been done in decades to create a real, proactive vision for the NYCHA community of the future: one where residents know that they have a voice, where communication between the city as landlord and the people who call our public housing home is more productive, and yields real results that improve social and economic outcomes.
The guidelines are grounded in pilots at NYCHA campuses that involved multiagency, resident and community organization collaboration, and a strategic plan that considered how to take the pilot to scale across NYCHA, together with evaluation metrics that will hold the initiative accountable to success.
As we consider the future of NYCHA, we have an opportunity to create a new model that makes public housing work for the people it is meant to serve, with resident voices at the forefront — to adopt a holistic approach that works to reverse the racist urban planning that has so significantly influenced the trajectory of public housing development in New York. Let’s take it.
Bloom is professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College. Karp is CEO of the city-based urban planning consultancy Karp Strategies, which created the strategic plan for NYCHA’s Connected Communities pilot.