One New York City neighborhood had basically given up on open space. But thanks to some new data, they were able to advocate for it, and get it.

Stand at the corner of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, to take a random intersection in New York’s East Harlem neighborhood, and you wouldn’t have a clue that you are within a 10-minute walk of one of the world’s great urban open spaces in one direction (Central Park) and a beautiful waterfront esplanade in the other (the walkway that runs along the East River).

Instead, you would see asphalt, concrete, and treeless streets in every direction.

You could be forgiven for thinking that this neighborhood is devoid of accessible, green open space. But the situation is more complicated than that. The nonprofit group New Yorkers for Parks (NY4P) has just released the results of an Open Space Index for East Harlem, and one of the most remarkable things that it reveals is that this often-overlooked corner of the city – with its alarming rates of asthma, poverty, and crime – actually has the raw material and potential to be a much greener, healthier, and more welcoming place than it is. It’s an inventory that the group hopes will serve as a catalyst for positive change and a model for data collection in other communities.

"The goal of the open space index is to provide objective data to communities," says Holly Leicht, executive director of NY4P. Then, she says, community groups can use that data to advocate for improvements with elected officials and city departments.

East Harlem could use the help. The study shows that the neighborhood falls short of standards set by NY4P in several areas, including active space, passive space, walking space to parks, recreation centers, and tree canopy coverage. Total open space is just 1.2 acres per 1,000 residents; the group’s standards call for 2.5 acres per 1,000 residents.

"This is one of the most underserved areas in the city," says Leicht. "But we were also surprised that there were as many resources as there are. One of the things that they have been good at here is the many small spaces."

The neighborhood is home to lots of community gardens, a legacy of the 1970s and 80s, when land here was abandoned by developers and taken back by residents. There are many playgrounds, basketball courts, and playing fields tucked away here and there, some of them in the huge housing projects that run along the river.

But East Harlem’s green resources are disconnected from each other – and, too often, from the people that need them most. That includes kids, who here have some of the highest obesity and asthma rates in the nation (as many as one in four East harlem kids suffer from asthma). Children are of special interest in the context of this study because it's part of a joint effort with the Mount Sinai School of Medicine Children’s Environmental Health Center, seeking to measure how the physical environment affects the health of children.

NY4P would like to use the study as an advocacy tool over the next couple of years, helping community groups to enhance the assets that are already there, develop the ones that are neglected or underutilized, and improve the connections among the community gardens, playgrounds, and passive green spaces that already exist.

As things stand, pedestrian-unfriendly streets are just one of many barriers that prevent people getting to the parks and open spaces that in some cases are not very far away as the crow flies. Central Park and its riches lie just to the west, but can seem a world away thanks to speeding traffic and dangerous intersections. The East River Esplanade borders the neighborhood to the east, and beyond that – across a narrow stretch of water – is the oasis of Randall’s Island, with its huge playing fields, bike path, and spectacular water views. But in between, crossed by only a few access points, lie the superblocks of the housing projects and the FDR Drive. Leicht says that relatively low-cost wayfinding signs could help a lot in getting people to realize that these resources are not far away, as could improved pedestrian infrastructure.

A playground in the neighborhood. Courtesy of NY4P

The public housing projects themselves have a tremendous amount of green space and trees that provide a real environmental benefit; they cover 200 acres in the study region, 80 percent of which is outside the building footprints. But the green lawns surrounding the buildings go largely unused. Leicht says that her groups will be partnering with the New York City Housing Authority and tenants’ associations to better use the spaces, addressing concerns about crime and management costs in the process.

This is the third neighborhood that NY4P has inventoried, after the Lower East Side and parks-poor Jackson Heights in Queens. The Jackson Heights study was done in 2010, and Leicht points to that as an example of what can happen once the community is armed with a little data. In the two years since the study was completed, advocates have worked with their elected officials and the city's Department of Transportation to get a play street opened for children and to have a new pedestrian plaza installed. The city is also purchasing a private schoolyard that it will convert into an open public play space.

"This was a neighborhood that had essentially given up on having more open space,” says Leicht. "With this data, they were able to go, and advocate for it, and get it." With any luck, she says, the same will happen in East Harlem.

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