How can we tell when cities are thriving?
We recently asked a number of prominent New Yorkers (and others who love the city) to tell us what they think defines a vibrant and safe city. This is the beginning of a more intensive effort to develop a series of markers that measure the positives of city life. Here are some of the responses we received. To propose your own, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Rev. David Brawley, pastor at St. Paul Community Baptist Church, Brooklyn. Can children play safely on the sidewalks and streets of their blocks, and can adults take walks without worrying about crime or chaos? In the Book of Zechariah 8, the Lord of Hosts says, “Old men and old women will again sit along the streets of Jerusalem, each with a staff in hand because of great age. And the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing there.”
2. Jeanne Gang, founder and leader of Studio Gang. I always look for gardening, public plots, where people are taking it over because they care about it. You don’t do that unless you feel some attachment to that place. Voting is so key to being engaged. If you could see by neighborhood block if people are voting, then that means they believe they have agency to change things.
3. Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. I measure the health and vitality of New York City by the number and diversity of street vendors I see on my morning commute to my office in midtown. The well-being of our immigrant street vendors is directly related to the health of our business districts, which is impacted by the number of workers back in their offices and the tourists in our city.
4. Ritchie Torres, member of the U.S. House of Representatives serving the West and South Bronx. I look to the outer boroughs, which were most resilient in the face of COVID-19, as the true measure of the city’s vitality. How many people are walking on Fordham Road? How many are dining and shopping at Arthur Avenue Little Italy? How many are touring the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden?
5. Andrew Kimball, president and CEO of the New York City Economic Development Corporation. New York’s population has grown significantly over the last 30 years because young people and immigrants in particular have continued to come to the city seeking economic opportunity and the vibrancy of our neighborhoods. However, prosperity has not been shared by all New Yorkers, and wealth disparities and inequities were painfully exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. As the city recovers, building 24/7 live-work-play neighborhoods with greater housing density, access to open space, shorter commutes, and educational pathways to the jobs of today and tomorrow is the key to continued growth and a stronger, fairer and more resilient New York.
6. Julie Sandorf, president of the Charles H. Revson Foundation. How many block parties are there? Community gardens, Girl or Boy Scout troops, local business associations, homeowners associations, PTAs, active churches, neighborhood watch groups, hyperlocal or community news outlets? How many occupied storefronts? I could go on and on …
7. Brian Lehrer, host of “The Brian Lehrer Show” on WNYC. You asked about how to measure a “vibrant and safe” city. My answer begins with defining “safe” broadly. It’s not just safe from street crime but safe from food and housing insecurity, and finally safe from the hundreds of years of systemic inequality. Then vitality will bloom a thousand ways, along with safety as traditionally defined.
8. Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild by Design. You can measure the health and vitality of this city by looking to see who is riding the subways after 10 p.m. If trains are crowded, and people are happy, they are seeing their friends, spending money and feeling safe — a clear indication if New Yorkers feel that the city is going in the right direction. If the trains are empty and most everyone is traveling solo, they are more likely to be going to or from work, and the others are staying in.
9. Robert Sampson, Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor at Harvard University. How many times have people participated in their local school or in a community-based organization? How many times have they visited the park or the zoo? How many times have they gone out to eat in another neighborhood? How many times have they visited friends in another borough? How many times have they used public transportation?
10. Kathy Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City. A mayor’s favorability number is useful as a gauge of public sentiment about conditions in the city — not necessarily because it’s an accurate measure of his or her performance. Another favorite indicator is the number of Broadway tickets sold. It’s very hard to have a healthy Broadway without a healthy city, and vice versa.
11. Alyssa Katz, executive editor at online local news outlet The City. I measure the health of a neighborhood by the prevalence of spontaneously organized efforts of self-improvement: community gardening, murals, cat care, block parties, cultural performances, religious gatherings, cookouts. These are not proxies for wealth, and indeed many wealthy communities are relatively impoverished in the grassroots public realm. Neighborhoods need people on the street with potential for shared purpose, even for people who are too preoccupied to participate at any given moment. Give it time.
12. David Kramer, president of the Hudson Companies. Hudson has had a lot of success over the years looking to build housing in overlooked neighborhoods. Usually the housing stock is old, and the neighborhood retail is tired and uninspired. We look for proximity to a subway line, proximity to a park that’s well used, clarity about where you can access a decent supermarket and pharmacy. And finally we look for “green shoots” in neighborhood retail. That typically means some signs of retail vibrancy — a coffee shop, a pizza place, a fun bar. This brings to mind our arrival in Prospect Lefferts Gardens 10 years ago, when we were building the first new rental project there in decades. On Flatbush Avenue, there was a brand-new sweet toy store. That gave us hope that we were in the right place.
13. Eric Cumberbatch, senior vice president for policy and community engagement at the Center for Policing Equity. The signs that a New York City neighborhood is thriving: 1) minimal police presence, 2) people jogging or riding bikes, 3) restaurants and businesses with ownership that reflects the neighborhood demographic, 4) racial and economic diversity on each block, 5) occupied houses, 6) accessible and quality health care options, 7) high graduation rates, and high rates of high-school graduates heading to college, 8) a low unemployment rate, 9) a high proportion of trash disposed of properly, and 10) an ample number of affordable, quality grocery stores.
14. Vishaan Chakrabarti, founder and creative director of PAU. My barometer for the city’s well-being is the vibe on the subway. Beyond safety, does the energy feel positive? Is there music, chatter and life, or are there darting glances of anxiety? To me right now, there is a definite return to the New York I love — the lifeblood of the city is back. Lately, it has been standing room only, and to those once-empty seats, I say good riddance.
15. Peter Madonia, proprietor of Madonia Bakery, former advisor to New York City mayors and former chief operating officer of the Rockefeller Foundation. For me, there are some intangibles that aren’t necessarily anecdotal but may not be scientifically measurable. How do people across all demographics feel about their city and neighborhood, and how is that reflected in how they talk about their city and neighborhood? I think about how people talked about their city after 9/11 and after the blackout in 2004, compared to now, in both my own reality but also through the media.
16. Bradley Tusk, venture capitalist, author and political consultant. The role of city government is to provide a safe, clean, well-managed template for people to then do something with — create businesses, make art, pursue ideas, raise families. So the metrics should be the basics: What’s the crime rate, and do people feel safe? Are the streets clean? How about the parks? What’s the graduation and college readiness rate at public schools? Is the water coming through the faucet clean? If the mayor can ensure these things work, everything else falls into place.
17. Renita Francois, chief strategy officer, Tides Advocacy. The most telling indicators of neighborhood vitality: foot traffic during the day and night; clean, well-maintained streets; the utilization of public spaces and their shared stewardship; minimal police presence — I’ve never ever seen a beat cop in Valley Stream, Long Island; the presence of young people hanging out; successful small businesses, including new establishments and restaurants, bars and social clubs; street art; diversity of all sorts; and senior citizens moving around freely.
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