I recently moved to the Lower East Side in Manhattan, New York City and performed a mini walking audit of the four blocks around my house. I may have gone more than a few blocks in some directions as the blocks in lower Manhattan are much smaller than upper Manhattan and it is easy to walk further than you may have intended.
The Lower East Side has a population of 80,855 people and is relatively diverse, being 20.3% White, 24.8% Hispanic, 8% Black, 43.8% Asian, and 3% mixed or other, according to the US Census. To the North is the East Village, to the West Little Italy and Chinatown, and to the Southwest is the Financial District. When walking around, there is a lovely mix of people from various ethnic, linguistic, and socio-economic backgrounds.
1. Incorporate a mix of land uses
I live in a coop unit with retail on the first floor. The surrounding blocks around my building also have retail on the first floor which creates a wide range of services and goods available in a very small radius from my home. Directly beneath my building is a ramen shop, a bike shop, a bar, and a psychic. The services in my building alone demonstrate the variety of retail that is available in my neighborhood and may encourage more activity at the street level than a neighborhood without first floor retail.
There are also schools, cultural institutions, small pocket parks, and the Williamsburg bridge in the surrounding blocks, enabling a true mix of land uses.
While there is a good variety of land use and types of businesses, there are also quite a few vacant storefronts. One recommendation is to fill the vacant storefronts. In the few blocks around my building I came across a handful of vacant storefronts which created gaping holes in an otherwise fun walk around the block(s). Some had signs on them indicating that they were available to rent, but others just looked forgotten. I fear that the price of land and/or the size of the space, being rather large in some retail spaces, may prohibit new businesses from coming into the neighborhood. Until these empty retail spaces are filled and activated with buzzing businesses, the block will continue to feel a little bit empty.
2. Design well-connected street networks at the human scale.
3. Provide sidewalks and enticing pedestrian-oriented streetscapes.
There are some areas around my building where the streets are clearly marked and the streets are well-connected, and other areas where there isn’t a clear connection to another street or where vehicles dominate the street, making it hard to cross or gather.
I recommend repainting existing sidewalks and street signage, and also creating more inviting areas for pedestrians to take a rest or gather on the street. In areas where it is feasible, I recommend actually widening the sidewalk to create more space for pedestrians. I also recommend filling the vacant retail so that there is more of a reason to walk streets that may be more void of retail options.
4. Provide infrastructure to support biking.
There is a bike trail that comes off the Williamsburg bridge and provides a great path through the neighborhood, however it is not well marked and the paint is fainting.
I recommend repainting all the bike lanes and upgrading signage so it is more clear where a biker should go. I also recommend adding more bicycle parking and even bike storage to encourage more locals to use their bikes. For example, I live in a fourth floor walk up and have a bike. I would be more encouraged to use it if I had safe bike storage at the street level where I could keep my bike and also if there were more places where I could lock it if I am using it to run errands.
5. Design visible and enticing stairs to encourage everyday use.
6. Install stair prompts and signage.
There are not any outdoor or visible stairs in my neighborhood, but many of the buildings do not have elevators and thus force stair usage if one is to get above the first floor. There are a few retail spaces that are below grade and have a few steps to their basement space, but this actually deters potential customers and isn’t particularly helpful to one’s daily health.
The benefits of this are that the neighborhood is easier to get around for those in wheelchairs because there aren’t any stairs.
7. Provide high-quality spaces for multi-generational play and recreation.
8. Build play spaces for children.
There are a few schools with playgrounds and basketball courts in the blocks around my building, but none look like they are open to the general public nor seem to encourage any multi-generational play or recreation.
I recommend that the recreational spaces are opened up to the public when not in use by the schools and that there is also some public funding provided for multi-generational programming. Something like a shuffleboard court with some organized games could encourage this kind of physical activity and be accessible to people of various ages and socio-economic backgrounds.
9. Accommodate a grocery store
10. Host a farmers market
There is one bodega a few blocks from my house, but it doesn’t have a very large selection of fresh fruits and vegetables. Fortunately, the Essex Street Market is only 4 blocks from my house and has a great selection of produce and other food items. I think there used to be a grocery store a few blocks from my house, but it now looks vacant.
A farmers market including vendors from the Essex Street Market and local cafes and restaurants would be a great way to bring awareness to the existing food options and encourage some social gathering in the streets or buffer areas.
11. Promote healthy food retail
There are a few fast food options in the blocks near my house, including a $0.99 pizza slice spot and an empanada food truck. While I am not thrilled about the Burger King, the pizza spot and empanada stand are actually really great options for someone who is on a budget and needs a high fat food item to fill their stomach. These spots also add to lively street life because people are often lingering in the street waiting for their food or eating with friends.
I recommend mandating that large fast food companies, like Burger King, include low cost, quality food options to their menus as well as find retailers that provide healthy options at an affordable price to fill the empty retail storefronts. This could even be done by setting up a shell space and facilitating a rotating pop-up of vendors to see what would be a good fit.
12. Support on-site gardening and farming
There is one pocket park a few blocks from my house, but it is just a collection of benches that face each other.
Add a gardening plot so there is some greenery and something to do in this plot of land.
13. Enhance access to drinking water
There were no visible areas to get drinking water.
Add drinking fountains and dog water fountains at every block.
14. Ban Smoking
As far as I know, smoking is not banned. However, I think this would be hard to enforce in public space.
15. Use materials and products that support healthy indoor air quality
16. Facilitate proper ventilation and airflow
17. Maximize indoor lighting quality
18. Minimize noise pollution
I could not tell from the walking audit if these things are in place in the buildings near my building, however I do know that my unit has double-paned windows and that has greatly lessened the noise we hear from the street. Implementing this in all buildings would definitely minimize noise pollution for tenants.
19. Increase access to nature
Because it is still winter, I am not sure how many trees are actually in the neighborhood, but it does seem like there are some!
Plant more trees and add planters and other elements that could include greenery to the sidewalks and areas that have wide plaza spaces. Add trees and greenery to the pocket park and give a grant to retail spaces so they could add more greenery to their storefronts.
20. Facilitate social engagement
While there is a vibrant street life, it does seem like most people are going from point A to point B. Strangers do not seem to talk to each other, unless in a retail store or soliciting.
Provide a fund for locals to use to organize their own social gatherings and use criteria that encourages intergenerational and diverse inclusion. Create more spaces where people can gather outside without having to purchase something.
21. Adopt pet-friendly policies
I am not sure how many buildings are pet friendly, but I did not see one area to let a dog relieve herself or get fresh water.
Create an area where dogs could go to the bathroom and also drink fresh water. A mini dog park that is well maintained would be a great goal. It would also provide a space for dog owners to socialize and for those of us who do not have dogs to watch dogs play.