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.