Public Life in NYC’s Plazas

Plazas in residential communities, where users are local, seem to foster more interaction

Seven NYC plazas were analyzed to identify new methods and metrics to study the connections and impacts of public life and public space to urban justice, with collaborator J. Max Bond Center (JMBC).

In the past seven years, the NYC Department of Transportation partnered with community organizations across the city to create over 70 new public plazas in neighborhoods lacking open space. Gehl and JMBC set out to develop a method to measure and evaluate if public life and public space design can promote more equitable access to social, cultural, and economic opportunities- who feels invited to new public spaces, who doesn’t, and how are the plazas used?

The Manhattan plazas had more economic diversity than the plazas in outer-borough neighborhoods

The Manhattan plazas had more economic diversity than the plazas in outer-borough neighborhoods

Can the design of public space have a positive impact on public life and urban justice?

This report reflects the findings from an 18 month investigation that measured and evaluated how public space contributes to quality public life and greater social justice.

Seven recently implemented plazas in New York City’s Public Plaza Program were evaluated. The Plaza Program is a unique initiative that has leveraged community support to create 70 plazas across New York City. The economic benefits of the program are documented, but little is known about how these places perform for people and support communities. New study methods were used to evaluate if public life and public space design can promote more equitable access to social, cultural, and economic opportunities – and to identify who feels invited to these new public spaces, who doesn’t, and how they are used?


Respondents of outer-borough plazas reported a stronger sense of ownership. This comes despite only 3% of all surveyed saying they participated in the plaza planning process. On average these plazas also have more regular and frequent visitors.


Lower income groups are over-represented at the plazas compared to the surrounding neighborhood demographics.

Findings reveal how plazas support social interaction, especially low-income earners, local neighbor-hood events, programs and culture. The people using them are socio-economically diverse – typically more so than surrounding neighborhoods.

The plaza program is an innovative city initiative, but there is room to improve, and recommendations to the City and plaza management organizations outline ways plaza implementation, funding, design, and programming might evolve to achieve even greater improvements to public life and urban justice. There is potential for other cities to integrate tactics like this into design and planning projects and support greater equity in their cities.


Residential plazas with more local and frequent users correlated with higher social interactions and recognition. On average, 70% of those surveyed recognize or know more people since the plaza opened. Additionally, those making less than $50,000 were more likely to make new connections.


Streets and spaces have an opportunity to be the great equalizer – inviting for difference amongst diverse neighborhoods


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Play in Plazas

Does Inviting for Kids Increase Socioeconomic Diversity?

Will making public spaces better for children increase the socioeconomic diversity of visitors? In partnership with a local NYC plaza manager, we are measuring how making public space more inviting to children might increase activity and diversity in the space.

Research has found that individuals who are exposed to people that are different from them exhibit more tolerant and inclusive attitudes (for example, Brown, K.T., 2003; Savelkoul, Scheepers, Novotny 2011; studies by G.M. Herek). Given the importance of social mixing to an inclusive society, the Institute is currently investigating if design and programming might play a role in creating spaces that invite for all types of people. Specifically, we are researching a potential link between the presence of children and diversity. Could interactions between children from different backgrounds in public space make the space more inviting to diverse groups, and even catalyze interactions between their parents? Might child-friendly spaces encourage more diversity in public areas, since all people need places to bring their children to play?


Fowler Square Plaza in Fort Greene, Brooklyn; Site of urban intervention inviting children to play

The urban intervention inviting children to play will be implemented at a NYC plaza

In the majority of Gehl’s surveys around the U.S., we have found that children are underrepresented in public space. In a study conducted with the J. Max Bond Center (“Public Life & Urban Justice in NYC’s Plazas”), we found that this was also true in New York City plazas. Across the seven plazas studied, only 2.2% of the activity in them was children playing. Because there is a great potential to better invite for children, the plazas will serve as an ideal test site to study how inviting for kids can impact diversity in public space.


Our primary aim is to understand if invitations that increase the number of kids in the plazas can also increase the diversity of visitors.

To test our research question, we will measure public life, social mixing, and diversity at a plaza in Brooklyn before, during, and after a child-focused event: the Uni Project, an organization that stages pop-up library events geared towards kids. We will conduct the experiment in Summer 2016.

Gehl Institute will measure the public life and social effects of the Uni Project, a mobile pop-up library that rotates through many NYC plazas. Image Credit: the Uni Project