Since 2008, the New York City Department of Transportation’s (NYC DOT) Plaza Program has transformed underused spaces into lively and social public plazas. The program engages non-profit organizations as partners in developing and maintaining the plazas, and works towards the broader goal of ensuring that all New York City residents have an accessible open space within a 10-minute walk from their home.
In recent years, the NYC DOT has worked with neighborhood partners to develop more than 71 plazas across New York City. The plazas begin as temporary installations that can be put in place easily using low-cost materials. By beginning with pilot projects, NYC DOT is able to bring the benefits of new open space to a community quickly and test plaza elements without major up-front capital investments. But, even in their pilot phases, the new public plazas have brought many new responsibilities to the communities that sponsor them. In the early years of the program, senior NYC DOT staff recognized that established, well-funded community organizations were much better positioned to assume plaza management responsibilities than those in high need neighborhoods. It was clear that if the program was going to equitably increase access to open space throughout all five boroughs, public space stewards in high-need neighborhoods would need extra help. In particular, there was a great need to provide technical assistance around plaza maintenance.
In 2013, the The Neighborhood Plaza Partnership (NPP) was launched as a program of The Horticultural Society of New York (The Hort), to establish a response to these needs. NPP engages in direct service and advocacy to assist community-based organizations serving as plaza managers in high-need areas. NPP provides a variety of services, including subsidized maintenance service using a workforce training model, organizational capacity-building, marketing advisory services, and citywide promotion of the benefits of the NYC DOT Plaza Program.
REVENUE AND FINANCING
The Neighborhood Plaza Partnership has three full-time staff members and operates almost exclusively on private funding. The organization was launched with the help of $800,000 catalyst grant from the JPMorgan Chase Foundation in 2013.
As part of its mission, NPP is actively exploring a number of models to help plaza managers in high-need neighborhoods secure financial resources. One promising strategy is bundling plazas in high-need communities with plazas that are better positioned to receive corporate sponsorship. Corporations, for example, typically direct sponsorship dollars to iconic plazas in areas with high volumes of pedestrian traffic. NPP has begun to explore the feasibility of fostering partnerships between high- and low-resource plazas, to create composite sponsorship or grant application packages that benefit both spaces. Still in the planning phase, this model shows promise, even though it has been complicated by the fact that each plaza has an individual contract with the city of New York.
ACTIVATION AND PROGRAMMING
NPP’s model acknowledges that community organizations typically thrive as leaders of public space activation and programming. As such, NPP’s model attempts to remove the burden of maintenance and cleanup, in order to allow community organizations to focus fully on the activation and programming elements of plaza stewardship. In some cases, NPP supports partner organizations’ programming work with targeted advisory services around sponsorships and marketing. This type of technical assistance will become a major focus of NPP’s work in the future.
As referenced previously, maintenance is a major focus of NPP’s model. NPP has recognized that while volunteers and local business owners can be key partners in periodic site clean-ups and light maintenance in the short-term, public plazas do require a maintenance commitment that is too large for this “good Samaritan” model in the long-term.
NPP places emphasis on careful documentation of costs for their subsidized maintenance services. As the organization develops, understanding the costs of stewardship remains a major priority.
In providing maintenance services, NPP collaborates with a number of workforce development programs. Through the Hort’s GreenHouse program, NPP engages formerly incarcerated individuals from Rikers Island Correctional Facility in transitional employment through plaza landscaping and maintenance jobs. NPP also contracts with workforce teams from Association of Community Employment (ACE), a non-profit organization dedicated to providing job training and work experience to homeless men and women.
NPP has had success with workforce development collaborations. Plaza stewardship and maintenance often proves to be an ideal employment scenario for program participants; the work can be highly social and it provides a strong connection to an important neighborhood community space.
desire to create hyper-local workforce development arrangements in which plaza maintenance jobs go directly to residents in their own neighborhoods. NPP is not currently able to offer this type of arrangement. While most communities cannot take on the commitment of developing and managing workforce development programs of their own, NPP is exploring training models for those who are interested in doing so. For example, NPP is working for one year with an organization called Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice in the Bronx, training staff to manage a workforce development program focusing on youth leadership.
Even with a workforce development program partnership, maintenance services are costly. NPP offers services on a sliding scale, and currently provides maintenance services for 14 plazas. NPP has tracked the cost range for maintenance to be $30-60,000 per plaza. At the subsidized rate, NPP’s average fee from community organizations for maintenance services is $11,000. NPP is placing strong emphasis on capacity building, to help the community organizations receiving subsidized assistance to grow and become more self-sufficient in funding maintenance.
NPP’s model is an innovative solution that addresses the resource disparities that impact a community organization’s ability to thrive in the role of public space manager. While the model is still developing, NPP’s work provides a number of lessons for public space managers and decision makers to consider:
In all aspects of public space management, maintenance and stewardship are often the most challenging for community organizations to take on. There is the typically a great need for support and technical assistance in this area.
To create a sustainable model, community organizations may need technical assistance that is focused on building their internal capacity to fundraise, secure sponsorships, and develop revenue streams that will allow them to pay for maintenance on an ongoing basis.
Visionary leaders are essential. In most scenarios, NPP works closely with the City Council members from the districts where the plazas are located. Council member support for NPP and local stewards, in terms of financial donations and staff resources, have been a critical component of the model.
NPP has clearly filled an important role in the landscape of public space management in New York, and the model should be considered for implementation in San Francisco. Existing organizations, such as the SFPA, may be willing to build on existing initiatives to duplicate this model in San Francisco.
Primary Model Type
Maintenance/Technical Assistance Partnerships
Special Assessment Districts
New York, NY
Neighborhood Plaza Partnership
Cost to set-up: $$$$$
Manager resource level: $-$$
Equity issues for public spaces in low-resource neighborhoods
Employment in low-resource neighborhoods
Capacity-building for local stewardship organizations