Forsyth Plaza, future home of Chinatown’s night market. (Photo Edward Cheng)

Growing up, Fernando Ortiz used to travel from his home in the South Bronx to his parents’ bodega in Harlem. His native borough is bordered by highways that create an urban heat island: the nonstop, circling traffic traps hot, smoggy air in the community. The environment causes health issues for the borough, like asthma and skin irritations. To reach Harlem, Ortiz would traverse mostly-treeless sidewalks to then cross a bridge: “And I remember [being] like, ‘Oh, my God—there’s a river so close to me!’ I had never seen it, and I couldn’t even get to it,” he recalled.

Oritz has spent most of his life in the South Bronx and remains fascinated by his surroundings, constantly questioning both the causes and effects of what he has come to identify as environmental inequity. The borough, like the rest of New York, is surrounded by water—but unlike the rest of New York, the South Bronx had no access to the waterfront during Ortiz’s childhood. “As a young child, I started to wonder, Why do these communities look this way? I would just reimagine these buildings or the spaces and design them in my head,” he said. “And today, I’m a planner.” 

Ortiz now works in the Bronx as a city planner, and last March, launched a consulting firm: The Greenest Fern. Earlier this year, he received an email inviting him to help a local community group revitalize gardens in the South Bronx. The opportunity was part of a grassroots initiative to help New York City recover from the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic; the email came from a coordinator with Neighborhoods Now.  

Neighborhoods Now is a program by Van Alen Institute and the Urban Design Forum, two New York City not-for-profit organizations of architects, urban planners, civic advocates, and culture makers that use inclusive design to create more equitable cities. 

Beginning last May, the non-profits, like a dating app, began matching neighborhood cultural institutions—like theaters, community groups, and small businesses—with local design firms that could strategically help them adapt to, and survive, the limitations of COVID-19. The initiative is now expanding to incorporate a variety of new projects, from a new basketball court for East Village youth, to a forthcoming night market in Chinatown, to community gardens in the Bronx that Ortiz is helping reactivate.

When Neighborhoods Now began last summer, they partnered FABnyc—a network of over 40 cultural institutions of the Lower East Side—with firms like Francis Cauffman Architects to create outdoor (ahem, COVID-safe) lobbies and seating arrangements for some of FABnyc’s performance art theaters. 

Across the East River in Brooklyn, Neighborhoods Now partnered Bed-Stuy Gateway Business Improvement District with architecture firm Moody Nolan to create and install an outdoor holiday market to generate commercial opportunities for local businesses. 

“We decided that the best way to start that program would be to identify particular communities who wanted to do this work,” Deborah Marton, the executive director of Van Alen, said, “and to bring around them designers, and other professionals like lawyers and engineers and financial experts and graphic designers who could in a holistic way meet an immediate need.” Throughout 2020, Neighborhoods Now distributed over $100,000 across the program to implement the tailored design proposals. And, as was possible, the program intentionally sourced designers from the same community as the organization.

Many of the barriers local businesses faced were bureaucratic as well as architectural. “When you’re talking about improvements in the public realm, it’s not just about design,” Marton said. “It’s like: How do I build a restaurant extension? Do I understand the regulations? Am I going to get fined?” Neighborhoods Now therefore provided their partners maps around the red tape—or rather, it provided experts to guide them through it. “We brought in all those professionals. We did financial literacy workshops [like]: How do you apply for a PPP loan?” Marton said, in reference to the financial aid available to businesses through federal stimulus packages. “We had the law firm Fried Frank create a lease template [and] any landlord and tenant could use [it] so that they wouldn’t need a lawyer.”

As the projects unfolded during the summer and fall, organizations outside the 100+ businesses and organizations of Neighborhoods Now began asking for advice. The institute realized that the resources they were creating could be helpful ubiquitously across the city. By this time, the partnering firms had crafted lease templates, designed blueprints for sidewalk partitions, translated and designed COVID-safety protocol fliers, developed air-purifying HVAC recommendations, and much, much more. So to make these “tools for community-led recovery” available, they archived every resource into an online, downloadable Neighborhoods Now Toolkit. Any business or organization worldwide can access and implement the designs for free. Since its launch in October, it’s been accessed over 4,000 times.

The Neighborhoods Now team also published exhaustive and interactive reports of each partnership. The reports reveal that most projects simply sought to reclaim urban space for human use, indicating that wasted space rather than dearth of space may be the predominant factor contributing to urban inequity. 

For example, a collaboration in Queens with 82nd Street Partnership (a community advocacy group in Jackson Heights) helped revitalize businesses struggling due to COVID-19 restrictions. One such business, Thakali Mustang Kitchen, a Tibetan and Nepalese restaurant, was on the brink of closure because they had no outdoor seating and take-out traffic was waning. The Neighborhoods Now team intervened with blueprints for outdoor seating and sidewalk barriers sporting hand-crafted planters. The report states: “[The Kitchen] was able to apply for the permits and subsequently we spent one Saturday installing sidewalk barriers and plantings. Before we could finish the installation, tables were set up and patrons sat down immediately.” 

(Photo: Sam Lahoz)

The designs to maximize the sidewalk kept the family business from closing, and the next weekend, the Kitchen reported that business was above average—and in September, Yelp reviewer Daniela W. noted the vegetable and chicken thali is “Yum!” and the “Outside seating setup is lovely.”

These Neighborhoods Now reports, each often exceeding 100 pages, chronicle the day-to-day, step-by-step implementation of the program, which ultimately underscores the extent of local design needs—which, ultimately, may underscore the extent of environmental inequity across New York City. 

But in light of the prevailing need—and, ironically, in light of the pandemic—Marton sees how New York can now strive for equity in unprecedented ways. “The pandemic has opened certain opportunities and a vision for a different kind of public realm,” Marton said. “Because of the pandemic, certain barriers that prevent connection across political, social, demographic, and professional communities fell, because as a city we understood: we have just got to do something right now because people are dying.” 

Neighborhoods Now is now looking to maximize these opportunities even as the limitations of COVID-19 recede: at the end of February as Governor Andrew Cuomo continued lifting restrictions—including expanding indoor dining and commencing Open Culture—Neighborhoods Now announced three new partnerships to begin this spring.  

In Manhattan, Neighborhoods Now is expanding their work with FABnyc’s cultural network on the Lower East Side. “[Loisaida] is a Spanglicized version of ‘Lower East Side,’” said Alejandro Epifanio, the executive director of Loisaida Inc., a neighborhood revitalization organization. For 30 years, this cultural institution has provided programs for both youth and seniors, facilitated an artistic residency program, and hosted an annual celebration of Puerto Rican and Latin culture known as The Loisaida Festival

“They’re called Marvel Design,” Epifanio said of his partnering design firm. “It’s actually very interesting because they have offices in Puerto Rico. It’s just, you know, kind of serendipitous.” With the help of Marvel Design, Loisaida Inc. will spend the spring months activating underutilized outdoor spaces at their facility on 9th Street. The design proposal includes plans to develop a basketball court within an interior courtyard to bolster Loisaida’s youth programs. 

“The neighborhood recently lost the Boys Club of New York, which had a huge presence here . . . and that’s been a huge loss for the community,” Epifanio said. “So that’s the idea around making this into a semi-public active space; it kind of helps fill in that gap.” According to the proposed designs, the hoops at Loisaida will be ready in June.

South of this burgeoning court, Yin Kong is thrilled to see a vibrant new future for Chinatown’s Forsyth Plaza. Kong is the cofounder and director of Think!Chinatown, a non-profit that helps foster inter-generational cultural engagement in Chinatown. “This is my dream project,” Kong said. “AAFE and Chinatown have been thinking about this project for years.” 

This spring, Neighborhoods Now partnered Think!Chinatown and AAFE—Asian Americans for Equality, a community development organization that advances equitable opportunities for Asian Americans—with designers to implement their plans for a monthly night market in Forsyth Plaza. The plaza sits empty once fruit vendors leave for the evening; the central neighborhood spot is then “just, like, crickets chirping,” Kong said. 

The night market, scheduled to begin this summer, will bring people and light to the triangle plaza. It will feature outdoor screenings of locally produced short films and also accommodate vendors. The commercial dynamic of the market will function like an incubator for Chinatown businesses affected by the pandemic. “The idea,” Kong said, “is that [vendors] will develop a following, so that by the time they’re ready to graduate to a brick and mortar, they already have [business].” The actualization of this long-term dream will not only replace the chirping crickets of Forsyth Plaza with New Yorkers, but will also re-populate Chinatown’s storefronts.

And straight across the island of Manhattan, and across that river Fernando Ortiz didn’t know existed as a child, The Greenest Fern has begun conversations with Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association—a community group that organized about 45 years ago while the Bronx was burning

As New Yorkers fled the crumbling borough throughout the 70s and 80s, organizers with Banana Kelly urged citizens to stay in the South Bronx, adopting the motto “Don’t Move, Improve.” Today, Banana Kelly owns about 68 apartment buildings across the borough that provide affordable housing to low-income New Yorkers. Historically, the housing service combated predatory practices that jeopardized sustainable housing. Today, the jeopardy is the same though the housing threat now lies in gentrification. Alongside the service, the organization also offers youth programs, ESL services, and community gardens that the designers of Neighborhoods Now are helping reactivate.

These five gardens each have varying design needs. One, for example, is already thriving and well maintained, but since it isn’t wheelchair accessible, it’s ineligible for most grants and funding opportunities. And another backs up to a tall, blank wall and stage that with landscaping, could host future movie nights and live events. “And then we have one of them that is just a completely empty lot . . . it’s a total tabula rasa,” said Ian Gray-Stack, the Director of Community Organizing at Banana Kelly. “[And another that] has fallen by the wayside and got overrun by rats . . . So each of the gardens is its own little universe.” 

Fernando Ortiz is excited for the design possibilities, and excited for what more greenery promises his home borough. “These spaces [will] be used for growing food, but they can also be communal gathering spaces,” Ortiz said. “Heat is a huge issue in the South Bronx, extreme heat, and these could be spaces where we could have temporary cooling stations…  It’s a vegetated space, so it will feel cooler than right off the street.”

Through the coordinated efforts of Neighborhoods Now, local garden leaders will have the materials and plans they need to grow each little blossoming universe into an enduring plot of natural life for the Bronx. And by July, these five gardens will be green and growing, just in time for New Yorkers to retreat to the reprieve of their cool, fresh air as the summer heat swells within the borough.

Speaking about the mental and physical repercussions of the Bronx’s environmental inequity, Ortiz said, “It’s not a coincidence that these communities have these issues—this is systemic planning.” Though planning may have created these problems across New York, planners like Ortiz and the craftspeople of Van Alen Institute and Urban Design Forum are designing solutions that will continue to reshape the city even as the limitations of the pandemic recede into memory. 

Correction, April 5: The original version of this post misidentified FABnyc and Bed-Stuy Gateway Business Improvement District’s design partners, and misspelled Neighborhoods Now in some instances. Another line was revised to better represent the amount of money distributed by Neighborhoods Now.