On a walk through one of New York City’s 328 public housing developments, one could expect to encounter a lot of fences. Green spaces are cordoned off by metal bars; footpaths delineated by rows of barricades. Wrought iron, wire mesh, tall, short–all varieties of fences are fair game. They were installed to give off an illusion of safety, but increasingly, the barriers have come to represent isolation.
When the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) released its first-ever design guidelines for the rehabilitation of its buildings, the fences were not spared scrutiny. Where NYCHA once would install a barricade around, say, a playground or a parking garage, the guidelines now recommend that designers consider alternatives like benches or greenery.
The new guidelines were created by Jae Shin, the Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow for NYCHA, who, after completing her graduate degree in architecture at Princeton University, spent several years working on urban community development projects in Newark. When she came on board NYCHA at the beginning of 2016, she was tasked with developing the guidelines as part of the agency’s larger strategic plan, NextGeneration NYCHA, which was released in 2015. The proposed 10-year overhaul aims to address everything from improved communication between managers and residents, funding (the agency, which is currently staring down a $17 billion gap in capital funding, bluntly admits that it is broken), and prioritizing building repairs. While the design guidelines are just one node in a much larger machine, they testify to an unavoidable truth: that any improvements to the agency have to start with its properties.
Some of the recommendations in the document, like redesigning kitchen cabinetry systems to make room for wall-mounted microwaves, are both functional and aesthetic. Those changes, Shin said in an interview with Co.Exist, could start to roll out later this year as a first step in implementing the guidelines. Others, like avoiding asthma-triggering products like spray polyurethane foam in construction and switching to green roof technologies, are more subtle, but nevertheless will have a positive impact on residents’ lives. While NYCHA has provided some building updates in the past (over two-thirds of all NYCHA elevators have been replaced in the past decade), the agency is not known for wide-scale overhauls. In fact, Nicholas Bloom, the author of Public Housing That Worked, told Next City that “what’s really notable about NYCHA is how little has changed” since the agency was founded in 1934. In the case of its persistent inability to address the mold problem plaguing many of it’s buildings, this is an issue with serious implication for residents’ livelihoods.
The guidelines represent a necessary shift in attitude on the part of the agency. Public housing is a substantial part of the landscape of New York City; the 2,500 buildings spread out over 175 million square feet of public space house around 600,000 people. As much of the rest of the city has begun to look toward sustainable development and embrace more human-centric design, the agency has been slow upgrade its existing properties. Now, however, NYCHA is preparing to engage designers, architects, and engineers to update the buildings for the 21st century. The guidelines will act as a toolkit for NYCHA’s in-house team of designers, Shin said, and for the various external agencies that the agency contracts with on projects like supporting aging communities and reducing buildings’ environmental impact.
Though connectivity is one of NextGeneration NYCHA’s stated goals, the design guidelines do not specifically lay out a plan for how the public housing complexes could be more effectively integrated with the rest of the city, something that has proven an intractable problem throughout the course of the agency’s existence. (Dismantling fences within the complexes can only do so much). It’s an issue that has also plagued public housing in many other cities. While places like Chicago have responded by simply demolishing its complexes, due to the size and scope of NYCHA, that’s not a feasible option for New York. A pilot project underway at the Tilden Houses in Brownsville, Brooklyn, points the way toward a possible solution: “Superblock Retrofit,” a resident-guided collaboration between Community Solutions, Terrapin Bright Green, WE Design, Atelier 10, and CookFox Architects imagines a way to integrate the complex into the surrounding neighborhood through adding laneways, community spaces, and retail. Though the project is still in development, Chris Starkey, a senior project manager at Terrapin, noted in a blog post that it could be a model for other NYCHA complexes to adopt.
At a panel discussion for the release of the NYCHA design guidelines on January 12, Shin said that while greater connectivity with the larger community is the goal, such plans will be impossible to implement without functioning buildings. “The people at NYCHA who are doing the everyday work of fixing the windows and roofs are preserving the opportunity for integrating the buildings into the rest of the city,” she said.