As Demand for Open Space Soars, New York Gets a Public Realm Czar
The overhead lights in the back of a public plaza in East Harlem, mounted on a rusty viaduct that supports the Metro-North Railroad, were not working.
And Carey King was panicking.
Ms. King, who runs the plaza as the director of Uptown Grand Central, a nonprofit group formed by local merchants, was getting ready to reopen that section in the spring of 2021 after two years of construction to make it nicer. It was so dark that neighbors stayed away. Drug addicts shot up in the shadows and others found hidden corners to urinate and defecate.
When Ms. King tried to get the lights turned on, the Metro-North Railroad, which is operated by the state, said they were not its lights. She went to the city’s Department of Transportation, only to be told to check with Metro-North.
After months of going back and forth with different agencies, she finally got city transportation officials to take ownership of the lights.
“It’s a bad joke: How long does it take to change a light bulb?” Ms. King said.
These are the kinds of prickly, bureaucratic issues that await New York’s first-ever chief public realm officer — a role that was created by Mayor Eric Adams to improve how the city uses and manages its public spaces, including parks, plazas and streets.
On Thursday, the mayor appointed Ya-Ting Liu, 43, a respected transit advocate, to the new role. She currently works as the chief strategy officer for the deputy mayor of operations.
“Our city’s public spaces are too important to fall through the cracks of bureaucracy, and now they won’t,” Mayor Adams said.
Ms. Liu said that she saw her new job as being the “central point person” for city agencies and the public, in hopes of making it easier to create and maintain public spaces. “I think we want to provide more support, to make that process more seamless, less friction,” she said.
She will also focus on citywide issues, such as helping to develop lasting guidelines for outdoor dining. Ms. Liu, who will work from City Hall with a team of four staff members, will take the lead on the mayor’s efforts to create and expand public spaces with $375 million in city funding, including reopening a popular skateboard spot below the Brooklyn Bridge.
New York’s sprawling inventory of public spaces is currently overseen by a thicket of city and state agencies that often work separately with little coordination. The result has been confusion and strife at times over who exactly is in charge, as well as a lack of overall planning and vision for the public spaces that have become increasingly important to urban life.
Now, New York has joined a short list of municipalities, including Boston and Los Angeles, that have turned to a public realm czar as the demand for these communal spaces has soared.
Even before the pandemic, cities were increasingly moving to create new parks or repurpose streets and infrastructure as a way to improve public health, promote transit use, revitalize struggling downtowns, and combat climate change.
Jacob Wessel became Boston’s public realm director in 2018, with the goal of making streets more pedestrian friendly with rapid, low-cost projects. Since then, he has helped create more than a dozen plazas and “parklets,” which transform parking spots into mini-parks, and expanded car-free open streets to more neighborhoods during the pandemic.
Mr. Wessel, who is based in the city’s transportation department, has coordinated work across agencies and cut through bureaucratic red tape. Still, there have been hiccups: When one parklet was being set up, the Public Works Department came by and issued a ticket for unauthorized dumping in the street. Mr. Wessel got the ticket rescinded.
He has also pushed for amenities in public spaces like movable tables and chairs and art, including murals painted on utility boxes. “I insert myself into those conversations,” he said. “Often, I’m there to be an advocate.”
But in most cities, efforts to take a more comprehensive approach to developing and managing public spaces have been sporadic, or they have been halted with changes in political leadership.
“Elected officials come and go in cities and they change their minds about what their priorities are,” said Elizabeth Goldstein, the president of the Municipal Art Society of New York, a leading advocate for public spaces.
In 2018, Mexico City scrapped a public space authority that had been created a decade earlier to manage plazas, parks and other public areas to improve the quality of life.
But that same year in California, Christopher Hawthorne, then the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, was recruited by that city’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, to be its “chief design officer.”
During the next four years, Mr. Hawthorne worked out of the mayor’s office with a small staff to help shape some of Los Angeles’s biggest investments in public spaces, infrastructure, and affordable housing.
“I was generally surprised at what we were able to accomplish,” he said. “It was a challenge. It was a real education for me in city government.”
Mr. Hawthorne embedded design requirements into the city’s procurement process that led to a new model for transit and bus shelters, in hopes of maximizing shade to reflect the realities of climate change. And he worked with historians, architects and Native American leaders to develop a more inclusive approach to building monuments and memorials in the city.
He also helped establish design criteria for affordable housing projects to make them more efficient and sustainable, and developed new architectural prototypes for more housing options in neighborhoods made up of primarily single-family homes.
“What we really tried to do is kind of change the way that Los Angeles broadly and city government thinks about these issues,” said Mr. Hawthorne, who took an expansive view of his job, saying it ranged from doing “very nitty-gritty policy work” to taking on broader questions about the city’s policy goals.
But since Mr. Hawthorne left in October to teach at the Yale School of Architecture, the position has remained vacant. Los Angeles’s new mayor, Karen Bass, who succeeded Mr. Garcetti in January, does not plan to name another chief design officer, a mayoral spokesman said.
Public realm roles in cities are still an experiment in progress, said Philip Barash, an urban planner who teaches at Boston University and co-founded the Public Sphere Projects, an initiative to help create and support effective and equitable public spaces.
Cities that really want to prioritize civic life in public spaces should not just create a public realm chief, but actually invest power and resources in the position, Mr. Barash said. The person in the role should be “at the top of the municipal pile” in order to have broad reach, he added, and should not be a “minor functionary buried in a couple of departments.”
The Municipal Art Society and New Yorkers for Parks have called for a public realm director since 2019. “It’s not a focus on making everything standardized and looking the same,” said Adam Ganser, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks. “It’s a focus on equitable access, making everything feel seamless, connected, and easy to use.”
The idea gained traction earlier in the pandemic as the city expanded Open Streets for recreation and outdoor dining. Critics pointed out that these streets were inequitably distributed around the city and were not linked in a continuous network that would benefit more people.
In the past year, nearly 50 parks, transit, business, and community groups have banded together as the Alliance for Public Space Leadership to press for a public realm chief. “The pandemic highlighted the challenges as well as the potential of open space,” said Jackson Chabot, the director of advocacy and organizing for Open Plans, a co-leader of the alliance.
Ms. King sees that potential in the plaza in East Harlem. Once strewn with trash and reeking of urine, the plaza has been transformed into a community center with a farmers’ market, concerts and disco parties.
The lights have been turned on now, but it is still too dim in the back of the space for people to feel safe or comfortable, said Ms. King, whose group took charge of the plaza in 2015. So they have hung up rainbow-colored string lights while they figure out how to get something more permanent.
“It’s been eight years of working between agencies trying to get stuff done,” said Ms. King, who looks forward to a more streamlined process in the future. “Think of how many brain cells die in the process. You start to lose your mind.”