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New Harlem Plaza can improve health

Devin Madden, MPH | 10/17/2013, 2:52 p.m.

Every summer, for three Saturdays in a row, miles of roads close to traffic and make way for us as we bike, rock climb or stroll through the city-sponsored Summer Streets festival. This past year, New Yorkers showed up in record numbers, with over 300,000 of us flocking to the seven-mile stretch along Park Avenue up to 72nd Street.

At any given moment, it seems hundreds of people can be found abuzz in Union Square sorting through fresh produce, learning new recipes, meeting neighbors, meeting strangers and watching art in the making.

And when Banksy made his most recent New York City appearance (appropriately named “Better Out Than In”), many of us bookmarked Gothamist (or just remembered to check) for updates on the artist’s latest piece, while others took to the streets to be the first to deface the pop-up graffiti in a matter of minutes.

These examples are seemingly unrelated, but all are given to prove a simple point. That is to say that living in New York means we interact with our environment—including our streets—in really intimate ways. We don’t have much room, am I right? So we revel in getting outside of our cramped apartments and living our lives outside of our homes. We yearn for public space we can interact with and in, regardless the size. And exciting things are happening outside!

So when I heard about the proposal to create a pedestrian plaza on Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Macombs Place that would be home to a standing farmer’s market, I thought, “Yes!” As people complain that transforming the space into a plaza will cause more traffic than it’s worth, I still think, “YES!” And here’s why.

The distribution of positive public spaces for New Yorkers to live, breathe, walk and play in while feeling safe, secure and just plain good has not always been so equitable. We need to prioritize pedestrian-friendly spaces, and this plaza does just that.

Those spaces are important for our health. The presence of parks, plazas and playgrounds, particularly when they are well-maintained, encourages us to be active. And we need to be active.

Last October, I was out in San Francisco for the American Public Health Association Conference. Lining the streets were billboards that read: “Your zip code shouldn’t predict how long you live, but it does.”

According to the 2012 Community Health Survey, 16.5 percent of Manhattan residents reported getting no physical activity in the past 30 days. When residents of Harlem were asked, that number hovered around 22 percent. In Manhattan, Harlem residents are at increased risk for chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure. I propose we do more to work with community members to look at public spaces in their neighborhoods and find solutions that can activate those spaces and make them places the community wants to use.

There are countless efforts that cannot go without recognition. Harvest Home Farmer’s Market has brought local, affordable produce and Play Streets programming to East and West Harlem. Concrete Safaris has made gardening a part of daily life for youth gardeners in East Harlem, repurposing over 15,000 square feet of land on New York City Housing Authority property. Los Muros Hablan New York City, in collaboration with Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito and El Museo del Barrio, recently reinvigorated space in El Barrio by bringing live mural paintings to East Harlem streets. And trust me—there are more.

But the opportunities are certainly not tapped out.

Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement, Harlem Community Development Corporation, Bradhurst Merchants Association and HERBan Farmers’ Market have presented us with another opportunity. I believe it’s an opportunity we would be wrong to turn our backs on. The proposal to transform a small space from roadway to plaza was built with insight, buy-in and the support of community members and longtime residents who know the current space well and have a vision that can truly benefit the health of their neighbors. There is a plan to close one half-block of Macombs Place will be closed, and a mock plaza will allow you to go out and see for yourself. Because New Yorkers love their spaces, I have no doubt that the event will draw a crowd, and with that crowd will come a strong sense of community and—if and when the plaza comes to fruition—a healthier Harlem.

Madden coordinates a boroughwide coalition, the Partnership for a Healthier Manhattan, through Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. The coalition is committed to working with the community to activate space to promote healthier lifestyles.