Kaatscast: the Catskills Podcast
Aug. 18, 2020

Cynthia Nikitin on Public Spaces and Resiliency

Cynthia Nikitin on Public Spaces and Resiliency

“People, Places, Possibilities” – A Conversation with Cynthia Nikitin

Sustainable Hudson Valley is working to accelerate progress against climate change through programs to scale up the clean energy marketplace and by helping communities plan for more resource-efficient patterns of living and working.  Like everyone in the Hudson Valley, we are confronting four major crises: Covid-19, social injustice, economic recession, and climate change.  SHV is spearheading a large-scale public conversation on responding to the urgency of each crisis, while understanding how they are connected and using that understanding to generate more sophisticated solutions.  It’s an ambitious idea that we are developing with our network of experts, including six Senior Fellows.

One of them is Boiceville resident Cynthia Nikitin, a 28-year veteran of the Project for Public Spaces.  She’s managed hundreds of  “placemaking” projects around the world, helping people to design downtowns, waterfronts, campuses and more, in ways that enhance sociability, connectivity and usefulness – for example, by developing residences and workplaces near transit and each other.  Right now, Cynthia is excited about the way that communities and businesses are being forced to re-think how space is used, even expanding restaurant space into parking lots and surrounding neighborhoods for safety.  She thinks this small shift can drive bigger changes in reclaiming excess streetscape, parking lots and under-utilized land for community revitalization and resilience.

Thanks to our sponsors: Sustainable Hudson Valley, and the Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway

Photo by Brian Paccione

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Welcome to Katz cast, a biweekly podcast delivering interviews, arts, culture and history from New York's Catskill Mountains. This week, people places possibilities. Our conversation with Cynthia Keaton. Sustainable Hudson Valley is working to accelerate progress against climate change through programs to scale up the Clean Energy marketplace. And by helping communities plan for more resource efficient patterns of living and working. Like everyone in the Hudson Valley. We are confronting four major crises COVID-19 social injustice, economic recession, and climate change. Sh V is spearheading a large scale public conversation on responding to the urgency of each crisis, while understanding how they are connected, and using that understanding to generate more sophisticated solutions. It's an ambitious idea that sh V is developing with its network of experts, including six senior fellows this summer. One of them is boys Ville resident Cynthia Nikitin, a 28 year veteran of the project for public spaces, she has managed hundreds of placemaking projects around the world, helping people to design downtown's transit facilities, libraries and government buildings in ways that enhance sociability, connectivity and usefulness, for example, by developing residences and workplaces near transit and each other. Right now, Cynthia is excited about the way that communities and businesses are being forced to rethink how space is used, even expanding restaurant space into parking lots and surrounding neighborhoods for safety. She thinks this small shift can drive bigger changes in reclaiming excess streetscape, parking lots and underutilized land for community revitalization and resilience. I visited Cynthia at Brunel park in Boyce Ville, New York. If you've ever driven up route 28 invoice Ville, there's a good chance you've seen the totem poles on her property. The Brunel sculpture garden was created in the 1920s by a man named email, Brunel, who came here from France, bought the land in 1921, and spent the next 20 years building these amazing concrete statues and totem poles, celebrating the wonders of nature and Native American history and culture. And he ran a hotel on the property, which is no longer the chalet in the end, which was very popular after world war one and before and during World War Two, with artists and designers, mostly from Europe, who came here to escape the Nazis. He also was friends with the Roosevelts and rigo. Caruso was a visitor, Irving Berlin spent time here, Jimmy and Max earns as well artists, so it has sort of a long tradition of being sort of an a Community Arts and Cultural Center, which is really our vision for the place moving forward. We are a nonprofit organization founded in the end of 2018. And we created the Friends of Brunel Park, to steward the land and the sculptures, sort of for the next seven generations so that we were hoping that there'll be an entity to continue to manage and operate the place, take care of the gardens and run public programs, you know, long after we're no longer able to so we really see it as sort of as a legacy for the community. It's one of only two historic designated properties in the town of olive, and we think it's important sort of to that local history that this place continues to just survive and thrive and welcome visitors, pushed most recently, by the covid 19 pandemic efforts are bound in reclaiming and reimagining space. Yeah, this has been happening in about 260 cities, at least 260 cities around the country with the advent of COVID is looking for ways for people to be outside safely, and to sort of take advantage of the public space that cities and towns have and repurposing them for outdoor dining, walking, cycling, active transportation and socializing. You know, 80% of the public space of any city are streets and roads. And this is like the first time that 80% of the population are being served by them. It's not just for cars. So it's really the first time in about 50 years that we've been having this sort of widespread dynamic conversation about streets as public space that's not being led by traffic engineers in the transportation departments, what it's doing by creating more space for people in streets and turning parking spaces into parks. etc. Cities are democratizing the streets for the first time, because as I said, they are a part of the public realm. They're everyone's property. And we sort of we have a right to them. It's really an issue of what Professor Julian eigenmann calls spatial justice, which is how planners, local governments, traffic engineers, and Departments of Transportation allocate street space, is it allocated to those who rely on walking in public transit to get around, or to the privileged people driving the largest private vehicles, and mostly the people with the cars one, they were the ones that got to use the space. And it's kind of an experiment and you know, in the entire interstate highway system, and suburbia was an experiment that happened everywhere around the United States at once. But unlike most experiments, it was never evaluated, the success was never measured, it was never questioned. And it's kind of been in place for half a century. And it's largely failed us in a lot of ways. So this is like a new dynamic, again, experiment, where it just seems to make sense that if you have if people are not going out, and they're not driving on streets, you've got all this vacant real estate. And there's a much better use for it than just parking vehicles, or you know, supporting commuters moving through a town. I've been working in the field of public space for the last 28 years. So this has been work that I've been personally involved in for like two decades, training traffic engineers in designing streets to support the communities that they go through building communities through transportation rather than building transportation through communities, working with transit agencies to think about their bus stops and train stations as public spaces and places and portals to communities. The movement has been around for quite a while this is just sort of an unprecedented moment where all of this work all of this research, these pilot projects have sort of come together to show let's do it, you know, it's gonna work and the fact of the matter is it is working. Well before the pandemic, major cities had been taking ambitious steps to reclaim public spaces from traffic. New York has pedestrianized Time Square and created hundreds of miles of trails, San Francisco's Market Street as a car free promenade, the mayor of Paris has made reclaiming public space from cars, a major political platform, reducing traffic 40% and winning her reelection. Hudson Valley Communities are experimenting as well, from the slow street strategy and Hudson, to many restaurants expanding into their surroundings and Rhinebeck and other towns. How can these steps be the beginning of a more comprehensive and enduring shift from car dominance to people centered public spaces with more pedestrian and bike opportunities, we've seen experiments like this before, you know, Time Square in New York was an experiment. And the reason everything was done with plastic tables and chairs and bollards and plants and pots was in case it failed miserably, they could clear everything out overnight and let the traffic flow, we had the temporary street closures like ciclavia, you know, where people are out using the streets for walking and biking. And it's good for people's health, the environment, and the air quality improves those three hours on Sunday when people are biking instead of instead of driving. So we are seeing that these experiments are working, they need to be evaluated, you know, the positive impacts measured, documented and disseminated. You know, we, we see the concept, we now need to sort of do the documentation to prove exactly what the benefits are. But in terms of making them permanent, I mean, the longer they stay in place, the longer they are likely to be permanent, you know, people are not going to want to come in and take them out. There's also money being spent, for example, the city of Cork, Ireland spent 2 million euros to create four kilometers of new cycle lanes in downtown cork, which is not a very big city. So if you're going to spend 2 billion euros as an experiment, and then you're going to cancel it, you know, that's is that money down the drain. So there's a financial incentive to keep them going and making them permanent. But people really need to speak up and tell the local municipalities and their local authorities that they want these changes to stay. And when there are discussions about reverting back to you know, four lanes of through traffic. The community the people that really love want this to happen actually need to be at the table and make their voices heard these kinds of changes this street closures and bike lanes should be implemented not only on commercial streets, you know, in like the wealthier parts of town, but in commercial streets in minority and low income communities, like the neighborhood Design Center is doing in Baltimore, you know, to support local and minority owned businesses that are at the heart of their communities. We find sometimes these changes happen in you know, in the wealthier wealthier parts of town. And so in terms of sort of spatial justice that really needs to be a consideration. This kind of flexibility is a sign of resiliency, which is the focus of Cynthia's professional practice today, I asked her what are some other aspects of resilience that are important in local planning, especially in light of climate change, I think what's important in local planning is there has to be a recognition that a community's connection to a place is at the very heart of resilience. We can build physically resilient places that also build social resilience. They kind of work together public spaces, support, interaction and cohesion and communities. But if you're just doing resilience for its own sake, or you know, the green infrastructure, it has limited value if residents don't really feel attached to it, or don't feel invested in it. So the future of Resilient Cities depends on residents and their investment in an environment in in the places where they live. So engaging impacted residents in planning for their future is absolutely vital. Collaboration needs to be in escapable. co designing with neighborhood residents and citizens, you know, at the neighborhood and district scale. And we need to build equity into every decision. You know, the goal is environmental quality and human equality. Great places are not only just environmentally sound, but they're socially just so I think planners need to sort of reflect upon their underlying preconceptions in terms of what defines success, and who ultimately benefits because many of these initiatives, as wonderful as they are, are implemented by Urban designers and engineers and architects not by citizens or mainstream organizations or environmental groups. So as such, they they run the risk of systematically reproducing many of the urban spatial and social inequities and injustices that have characterized cities for more than a century. So not everyone can afford to live on a lightly trafficked Street, which is where complete street treatments generally take place. And the question is when sidewalks are taken over by restaurants to provide space for outdoor dining, it's generally to the benefit of their patrons in the restaurants themselves. But where are the rest of us, you know, supposed to wait for the bus or walk when the sidewalks are full of, you know, wealthy diners from the suburbs. So these are questions that, that on the surface, everything looks great, but you know, who is really benefiting and who is sort of not being taken into consideration, who's missing out? Cynthia Keaton lives in boys Ville and founded the Friends of Brunel park to support a beautiful sculpture garden. I asked what she's learned from that experience, about how to encourage people to care about public space. What I learned is no one will invest in you, if you don't invest in yourself, no one will invest in your main street or your downtown, if the city does not invest in itself, so when people say we don't have money to make Mainstreet better, we need to get more businesses here, it's the argument is flipped, you really need to show that you care about your city in your town, because that will attract other people to want to shop there live there, open businesses there, etc. So you know, you need to, you need to invest in yourself first. But this idea about attachment is what gets people to care about public space, there was a Knight Foundation study done a number of years ago called soul of the community. And people said, Oh, what makes people attached Oh, jobs and good schools and you know, quality of life. And it's really, they found three things social offering, so activities, aesthetics, that the place was attractive and comfortable and safe feeling and openness, which meant it was welcoming and inclusive. And this was a study of 26 communities. So it's really about fostering attachment. And that also emerges when people feel a sense of belonging, which includes feeling recognized and heard and respected and given an opportunity to contribute to the place they love, you know, with their time, their energy, their knowledge, their wisdom, and expertise, you know, as well as with in kind and financial donations, you know, to make it even better. So we're hoping to encourage people to come here and figure out how they want to contribute to it. Is there a program they'd like to run? Are there other folks they'd like to bring in? Is there a workshop or a class they'd like to take? Are there other sort of resources or people that they know that might be of help to us, we are looking to continue to maintain and expand the pollinator native gardens. And of course, our statues are almost 100 years old, and several of them needs some repair. So we're hoping to sort of create that sense of belonging here where people will feel that they are welcome and that this is part of their community and they want to they want to support keeping it, you know, looking wonderful. The boys filled trailhead to the ashokan Rail Trail is just a quarter of a mile from Brunel Park. Cynthia sees possibilities for trails and towns to connect, having trails not only for exercise and recreation, but for you know, active transportation where people you know, you can ride your bike, you buy some chocolate frooition chocolate, and the trails are really also sort of connected to commercial corridors. We've been thinking about connecting trails, trails, but we haven't really been thinking enough about connecting trails, to community centers, or to retail areas, or even to let people know when they're at the shokan Rail Trail, that there's pizza and chocolate and olives cafe, just 100 yards away, and there's outdoor seating and dining. These are economic engines in many, many places. How can we capitalize on that? I don't think there's been enough attention there about sort of this old trail town concept. And then of course, sort of tying public transit into that and looking at people's complete experience of the area where you can put your bike on a ukcat bus and get dropped off the trail and they'll have lunch. And it's sort of how do we connect, we have so many wonderful resources here. But it's just generally my experience from doing this work for so long. Connecting the Dots is just needs to happen more, you know, people need to think a little bit outside the box and think about the unlikely suspects and who they can partner with and how we can activate these programs in a way that's socially and economically beneficial. To learn more, follow sustainable Hudson Valley, and to check sustain hv.org for dates of upcoming webinars. Thanks to our sponsors sustainable Hudson Valley and the 52 mile Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway following New York State Route 28. Through the heart of the central Catskills for maps, itineraries and links to area restaurants, shops and accommodations. Visit scenic catskills.com cats cast is a production of silver Hello audio. Please don't forget to subscribe, and we'll see you again in two weeks. I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for listening 

Transcribed by https://otter.ai