Because of its proximity to Central Park, you might be forgiven for assuming East Harlem has plenty of open space. But a new report  from New Yorkers for Parks argues that the neighborhood is isolated from many of its parks by busy roads and other barriers. Streets and sidewalks, the group says, can play a crucial role in encouraging physical activity as part of the neighborhood’s fight against above-average asthma and obesity problems .
The report, funded by the Aetna Foundation and Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito, is the third in the advocacy group’s Open Space Index  series; the first two reports covered Jackson Heights and the Lower East Side. Since its release in 2010, the Jackson Heights index  has been used by local advocates and leaders to show how the neighborhood stands to benefit from initiatives such as play streets  and public plazas .
New Yorkers for Parks Executive Director Holly Leicht told Streetsblog that she is hoping for this report to have a similar effect in East Harlem. “We want to put these in the hands of community leaders and residents,” she said, “and let them figure out what their priorities are with this data.”
One of the report’s top recommendations is the continued expansion of street safety improvements in the neighborhood. “Streets and sidewalks comprise 80 percent of New York City public space,” the report notes. “Unless they are safe, accessible passageways, they can serve as barriers rather than connectors.”
Play streets, which have already been implemented in East Harlem , can play a central role in providing open space for residents, the report finds. For six Thursdays in the summer of 2010, East 104th Street between Second and Third Avenues was converted to a play street, giving children space to play games, meet with friends or work on arts-and-crafts. The report recommends linking play streets with farmers markets to promote healthy nutrition along with physical activity.
The complete street treatments recently installed on First and Second Avenues  are a big step forward for street safety, but East Harlem continues to have some of the most dangerous intersections on the East Side , including 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, where 19 cyclists and pedestrians died between 1998 and 2008.
Some intersections that provide critical access to parks along the Harlem River and the East River have already received upgrades after Transportation Alternatives worked with community groups to come up with solutions .The intersection of 142nd Street and Fifth Avenue, for example, received upgrades  to slow traffic accessing FDR Drive and shorten crossing distances for pedestrians accessing a footbridge to Harlem River Park.
Even with the street safety improvements, the report noted, FDR Drive will continue to be a barrier between the neighborhood and its waterfront parks, providing only four East Harlem access points to the East River Esplanade and only two East Harlem connections to Randall’s Island. Neighborhood planning advocacy group CIVITAS has proposed new pedestrian bridges  to between the neighborhood and Randall’s Island. Meanwhile, Manhattan Community Board 11 has identified a desire for more bridges over FDR Drive to access the East River waterfront in its 2013 Community Needs Statement .
The report also says that DOT’s CityBench program, which was launched in East Harlem a year ago , and wayfinding signage  are relatively inexpensive improvements that can encourage people to get outside and stay healthy.
New Yorkers for Parks is working in tandem with Mount Sinai School of Medicine Children’s Environmental Health Center, which is conducting a 12-year longitudinal study of 334 children in East Harlem. The Mount Sinai researchers are looking at the relationship between health and the built environment by examining not just open space but also housing conditions and food access, among other variables.
Currently, New Yorkers for Parks is working on Open Space Index assessments for the East Side  districts of Council Members Dan Garodnick and Jessica Lappin, with the reports expected to be complete by summer. Having a comprehensive data set for the entire East Side will allow the organization to compare each neighborhood’s parks facilities, including access to the East River Esplanade, to those in nearby areas.
In their work, staff at New Yorkers for Parks have found that they have to look beyond the park fence in order to understand complex neighborhoods. “You can’t just look at how people feel about the parks themselves,” Leicht said. “The surroundings and how you get to them is equally important.”