10 smart 'By the City/For the City' ideas we love

The "By the City/For the City" program is crowdsourcing ideas to improve New York City. Here are 10 of our favorites.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

In honor of Urban Design Week 2011 in September, theInstitute for Urban Design is soliciting ideas to help improve New York City.

The program is called "By the City/For the City" and is essentially a way to outsource ideas for city improvements to the folks that use it most. After all, city officials can't walk every street in the five boroughs.

Since the program opened to the general public on April 11, the ideas have been pouring in -- more than 500 to date. The submission period has been extended indefinitely, and we're already seeing some gems surface.

As such, here are 10 of our favorites:

  1. Connect the subway to the airport. New York's sprawling public transit system is almost as large as the city itself, but travelers have to go out of their way to use it to get to the airport. While John F. Kennedy International is almost served by the "A" train directly -- you must pay extra for the last leg on the "AirTrain" service, and the A itself is sluggish, as the train goes local in Brooklyn -- LaGuardia has no such luck, requiring a trip on the Queens-bound "7" train and a transfer to a bus. Most New Yorkers don't bother with either, opting for a more predictable, comfortable and direct taxi ride. Lesson: make it easier for people to get where they want to go.
  2. Support multiple modes of transportation on bridges. The Verrazano Narrows is a very long, very narrow bridge that connects the far-flung borough of Staten Island -- land of cars -- to Brooklyn. It's not currently a heavily traveled path by pedestrians or bicyclists, but it's a chicken-or-egg scenario: would it be if the bridge dedicated lanes to non-automotive forms of transport? Lesson: bridges aren't just for cars.
  3. Put empty roofs to use. Cities are dense collections of built structures surrounded by concrete and asphalt. None of this adds up to comfortable living in the summertime, where the "urban heat sink effect" rears its ugly, hot head. Legislature encouraging, or even requiring, building owners to install some grass on their buildings would benefit an entire neighborhood. No one wants to replace your rooftop pool or private grilling area, but an open expanse of tar is not helping your electricity bills. Lesson: take advantage of nature's benefits.
  4. Turn empty lots into pubic green spaces. Empty lots attract trash and people up to no good -- plus they make a neighborhood look terrible. Turn those frowns upside-down and add some greenery, instantly improving the look and air quality of a street. Plus, as an impromptu park, it helps your neighbor keep Fido away from your precious petunias. Cities know this, of course, but most are challenged to act because they fail to keep accurate records of the quantity and ownership of these lots throughout the city. It's time to get on it. Lesson: give proactive residents a way to improve their own neighborhoods.
  5. Provide trash cans and recycling bins. This isn't just about keeping downtown pristine for the tourists, this is about giving city residents a way to keep their own neighborhoods clean. Far too many corners lack proper refuse containers, and hardly offer a way for pedestrians to recycle. And it turns out that most people would do so, if given the option. So let's extend our residential trash pickup efforts to actual city streets and make it easier for people to follow the law. Lesson: same as No. 4.
  6. Reuse water removed from the subway system for something else. Water is energy. It takes energy to move it, whether to remove it or use it. Millions of gallons of water are removed from underground to keep subway service running; can we close the loop and use it to accomplish another goal? Lesson: turn nuisances into assets.
  7. Encourage pocket parks through medians that matter. Cities are dense and suffocating; we all need some respite on occasion -- especially when the weather's nice. But you can often walk blocks and blocks before you get to a spot where you can legally rest your heels. Manhattan's Upper East Side is an example of this, sandwiched between two grand parks (Central and Schurz) but nary a blade of grass in between. Grassy medians exist along car-dominated but quiet Park Avenue, but they've been restricted to tulips, not toddlers. Downtown, Allen Street suffers the same fate. With a little attention, these grand avenues can look more like certain parts between Houston St. and First St., which offers benches and shade for pedestrians. Lesson: let public spaces serve multiple stakeholders.
  8. Make city services more accessible. Like city governments themselves, city websites often feel like a labyrinth designed expressly to dissuade residents from communicating with their government. Often, those are simple requests: request a street tree, report a pothole, obtain a recycle bin. Simplify sites by reducing the amount of layers of irrelevant information a resident has to sift through to find what frequent request they want to make, encouraging participation and improving data. And make sure when they find what they need, it doesn't end with instructions to call a trunk phone line with a robot operator. Lesson: employ residents to improve the city.
  9. Selectively restrict cars. We're all about multi-modal transportation support, but in some older cities on the East Coast, there exists streets that simply aren't designed to handle the automobile. Let's be realistic and leave tiny side streets to tiny feet or vehicles (such as scooters or bicycles) during prime daytime hours. Lesson: don't fight a city's natural inclinations.
  10. Use signage more wisely. Signs indicating direction ("uptown" or "downtown" would end a lot of tourist confusion) or even the nearest subway station can help a city's pedestrians act more logically. And it's not just tourists, either: a few well-placed signs in the West Village or on the Lower East Side would help many folks get their bearings more quickly; ditto for drivers looking to get to the airport or to the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels. Lesson: make signage make sense.

Great ideas, all of them. What are your ideas to improve New York -- or any city? Tell us below, then head over to the BTCFTC website to submit them.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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