Deborah Marton, 49, is the senior vice-president of The New York Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reclaiming and restoring New York City parks, community gardens and open space, and to planting a million trees within the five boroughs by 2017. She lives in the Flatiron District with her daughter Lola, 15, and son Henry, 13.
What would you most like to see changed or accomplished in NYC?
One of the goals of PlanNYC is to have every New Yorker live within 10 minutes walk from a park. Pelham and Van Cortlandt Parks are great, but if you live in the South Bronx, there's hardly anything for people to get to because those parks are very far away.
There are lots of spaces that could be developed into “pop up parks," - green spaces where you could sit and relax. A developer may not get the financing together to develop a lot for five years: In that five years people fall in love, babies are born and people retire. They could use those green open spaces with grass and benches for all the key moments of their lives! We have a strategy for creating a pop up park the minute a lot is empty. Whatever space we can grab for the public, we should, and work to preserve spots for the public in every neighborhood.
Wouldn't developers object? They might be nervous about reclaiming a public space that becomes beloved and worry about liability, should someone be injured on site and sue.
They need municipal incentives, like a waiver of liability. The city self-insures, and it could say, “during X amount of time, you'll be insured.“
What about roofs?
To green the city in a maximalist fashion, there are a few reasons why every roof can't be a green roof — but they're not insurmountable.
What is the biggest threat to public space?
We don't have the funding to maintain public space. That's why there are so many public-private partnerships. We spend lots of money to build new things, but don't spend anything on maintenance. You can't build things sustainably if you don't plan for how they'll work together and how they'll be maintained. The solution involves a change in the mindset of what is of value, and a longer term way of thinking about things. We need long term planning built into the budgets, a structural change in how the city allocates money and how the budgets are structured. The cost of making something and maintaining it should be one thing, so when we come up with a budget, we include both those things. We don't do that now. We should.
Who are the biggest abusers of public space?
On a macro level, we are under resourced in the public realm. If you don't live near a place like Central Park or have street trees, you don't enjoy those benefits.
On another macro level, a lot of developers made deals and got tax benefits in exchange for providing public plazas, seating areas and walkways. It seems like they're being fenced in and disappearing, and everything from plazas to sidewalks are being colonized by restaurants and other private entities grabbing public space for private, for-profit use.
There has been a creep backward where those places aren't as accessible any more. It's the city's fault for not controlling standards and not enforcing them. We're a capitalist culture but we need to understand that as a city is we're all connected.
And what about rules for how to behave in public spaces? There are so many conflicts over music in parks, which some people would like to preserve as places of quiet contemplation, and on sidewalks, where everyone seems to be walking around staring at the phones in their palms, or yapping on their phones, oblivious of other pedestrians.
We do have rules. You're not allowed to spit in public spaces. There are regulations around noise — it's an enforcement issue. But these conflicts are the nature of living in the city. If someone went skeet shooting in Central Park, it wouldn't be OK. But living in the city is messy and everyone needs to compromise. If the dog walkers can't make peace with the roller disco people, what hope is there? We have to be flexible.
What are your favorite public spaces?
Rockefeller Center — its scale and the way it's managed makes you feel great, like, 'I'm a citizen of the world! We're in a place that's prospering! The future is going to be great!' And right now I'm really enjoying the new waterfront spaces. Hudson River Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park? Those places are miracles I didn't believe would ever exist. There was a poetry to their spaces in their decline but the vibrancy they have now is unimaginable.
Most of us experience public space in NYC on the sidewalks, which seem increasingly congested. Should they be widened?
That depends on if you think NYC should plan for more pedestrian or more car traffic. If you want to accommodate more pedestrian traffic, there are definitely spaces that are over-engineered, and we should reclaim some of the roadway (for pedestrians). Times Square was a very dense area and they took away some of the roadway and the heavens didn't fall.
What's the greatest investment a New Yorker can make?
Beyond donating to the NYRP? Planting something — like a tree! If we don't have nature in our city, we'll find ourselves in a city that's unlikeable. We just gave away 250 trees at Brooklyn Bridge Park. Twenty-six percent of NYC land is private residential land. That's a huge opportunity for tree planting. We focus on neighborhoods. We're a wealth re-allocator in a way. When we give trees away, we provide information on how to plant them correctly. We followed up in 2011 on trees we gave away in 2010 and found out that 85% survived.
What does being a New Yorker mean to you?
Having a heart and mind that is open to diversity. We are living in the most remarkable city the world has ever seen. Every day we see miracles of interaction. Peace reigns here. Small miracles reign every day here. And public spaces are where so many of those every day miracles take place.