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18 February 2021

Van Alen Institute & Urban Design Forum Expand Neighborhoods Now

Van Alen Institute and Urban Design Forum Expand COVID-19 Response Initiative Neighborhoods Now

New community partners in Chinatown, East Village, and South Bronx collaborate with interdisciplinary experts on pandemic recovery

Since April 2020, initiative has assisted more than 100 restaurants, small businesses, and cultural organizations

(February 16, 2021—New York City)—The Urban Design Forum and Van Alen Institute today announced the expansion of Neighborhoods Now, a COVID-19 response initiative that connects New York City’s hard-hit neighborhoods with coalitions of architects, designers, engineers, lawyers, and planners providing pro bono expertise. From February to June 2021, Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE) and Think!Chinatown, Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, and Fourth Arts Block (FABnyc) will lead community working groups in Chinatown, the East Village and Lower East Side, and the South Bronx. Each group aims to convert underutilized outdoor spaces as sites for local programming and cultural revitalization. The Forum and Van Alen have granted each community partner $10,000 to implement these strategies, and will provide additional fundraising support as funds become available.

“We’re deeply grateful we were able to support hundreds of New Yorkers through direct relief efforts in 2020. This year, our working groups are driven by how the pandemic has permanently changed our use of public space. It’s time to look at what kind of city we want for our future, and start using our gardens, plazas, and sidewalks in new, community-centered ways,” said Deborah Marton, Executive Director, Van Alen Institute.

Daniel McPhee, Executive Director, Urban Design Forum, added, “I’m continuously inspired by our community partners as they navigate new and tough challenges driven by this pandemic. We’re proud to mobilize the design community to support them, and are particularly excited to see how our new teams help AAFE, Think!Chinatown, Banana Kelly, and FABnyc plan safe outdoor operations this spring.”

Launched in May 2020, Neighborhoods Now has supported more than 100 small businesses and cultural organizations, including more than 20 restaurants who were able to participate in the city’s Open Restaurants program as a result. To date, the Urban Design Forum and Van Alen Institute have regranted more than $100,000 to community partners to implement the designs and strategies developed.

Based on the initiative’s work in 2020, Van Alen and the Forum developed 10 policy recommendations to share with New York City’s Departments of City Planning, Cultural Affairs, Parks and Recreation, Small Business Services, and Transportation, and the New York City Economic Development Corporation. Serving as guiding principles for the initiative’s upcoming work, these recommendations include tactics to provide targeted support to communities in most need and utilize existing community assets such as parks, sidewalks, and vacant lots.


Chinatown, Manhattan

Led by Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE) and Think!Chinatown, the Chinatown working group will develop a proposal to adapt Forsyth Street Plaza into an open-air market supporting local Chinatown businesses and cultural groups. The working group consists of Leroy Street Studio (architecture and design), di Domenico + Partners (architecture and landscape architecture), and Buro Happold (engineering).

“Asian Americans For Equality (AAFE) is thrilled to partner with Think!Chinatown under the Neighborhoods Now initiative to come up with creative, community-led solutions for Chinatown’s underutilized open spaces, with the twin goals of helping our embattled small businesses and creating a more permanent cultural arts space for the community,” said Thomas Yu, Co-Executive Director, AAFE. “We look forward to working with Leroy Street Studios, di Domenico + Partners, Buro Happold, Fried Frank and all the staff from Van Alen Institute and the Urban Design Forum to make this happen.”

East Village and Lower East Side, Manhattan

Fourth Arts Block (FABnyc) is expanding their collaboration with Neighborhoods Now by bringing in four new member organizations: the Gene Frankel Theatre, KGB Bar / Red Room, Loisaida Inc, and Performance Space New York. Together with Buro Happold, Marvel, and SHoP, they will develop reopening strategies tailored to needs of smaller performing arts organizations, which are critical contributors to building community and strengthening the cultural fabric of neighborhoods.

“FABnyc has been struggling to find real, concrete ways to support our cultural community — our theaters and dance spaces have been shut down since March 2020,” said Ryan Gilliam, Executive Director, FABnyc. “Neighborhoods Now has been a powerful, steady partner through this time, working with our groups to imagine safe, creative ways to bring live performance back to NYC.”

South Bronx

Spearheaded by Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, the South Bronx working group will reactivate community gardens in Longwood, Hunts Point, Morrisania, and Mott Haven, allowing for safe outdoor activities and services that address neighborhood needs. Banana Kelly is joined by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (landscape architecture), The Greenest Fern (sustainable design), and BD Felíz (graphic design).

“In the South Bronx, community gardens are some of the most important assets we have in the fight against dire health disparities that unfairly burden the low-income communities of color we serve,” said Ian Gray-Stack, Director of Community Organizing, Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association. “With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this fight is more important than ever, which is why Banana Kelly is excited to participate in Neighborhoods Now to develop resident power by safely reactivating our garden spaces through infrastructure improvements and community organizing.”

Law firm Fried Frank will continue their engagement with Neighborhoods Now to provide legal guidance to all working groups, and the Association of Nonprofit Specialists has joined the initiative to provide fundraising expertise to community partners. Specialized expertise will be provided on an as-needed basis by experts at CUNY’s Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy and CUNY Graduate Center, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, Drexel University, the Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons School of Design, Kramer Levin, National Development Council, Sam Schwartz, Silman, Thornton Tomasetti, Two Twelve, and VHB.

“We are tremendously grateful for the opportunity to work with committed organizations and talented design professionals in addressing the current challenges faced by local businesses and the communities they serve,” said Carol Rosenthal, Partner, Fried Frank. “We seek to bring our legal lens to the multi-disciplinary team that Van Alen Institute and the Urban Design Forum have assembled for this exciting effort.”

“Small businesses are the beating heart of our communities. Just as we’ve supported struggling enterprises through PPP loans, we’re honored to advance the work of Neighborhoods Now,” said Carlos Naudon, President and CEO, Ponce Bank, a supporter of Neighborhoods Now. “This initiative has really helped small businesses through design expertise and getting boots on the ground, and we’re proud to see our communities pulling together to help each other.”


In 2020, Neighborhoods Now initially convened eight working groups led by community organizations in Bed-Stuy, Jackson Heights, Kingsbridge, the Lower East Side, and Washington Heights. The outcomes were a set of design recommendations and prototypes addressing immediate needs for COVID-19 awareness campaigns, open air dining, and outdoor education and cultural programming. In some neighborhoods, prototypes have already been implemented, and Van Alen and Urban Design Forum are actively fundraising to support additional implementation.

Neighborhoods’ needs also went beyond design and physical interventions. Working groups organized financial workshops for small businesses, drafted legal templates, and collaborated with senior staff at City agencies to help neighborhoods navigate programs like Open Streets and Open Restaurants.

Nearly all of Neighborhoods Now’s participants have continued collaborating beyond their initial scope, resulting in projects such as the Bed Stuy Gateway BID’s recent “Winter Wonderland” designed with Moody Nolan and an upcoming landlord/tenant mediation workshop organized with Alloy and Fried Frank.

To see the designs, guidelines, and strategies from the initiative’s work in 2020, visit neighborhoodsnow.nyc. Detailed reports from each group, posted on the Urban Design Forum and Van Alen Institute websites, provide full context for each resource and greater insight into this collaborative, community-led process.

Neighborhoods Now is made possible by special support from Home Depot and the New York Community Trust. Van Alen Institute and Urban Design Forum also thank Neighborhoods Now’s generous sponsors. These include Lead sponsors Citi Community Investing & Development, KPF, and Ponce de Leon Foundation; Benefactor sponsors Alloy, Apple Bank, Ponce Bank, and Snøhetta; Advocate sponsors Brooklyn Cooperative Federal Credit Union, DLR Group, the Elmezzi Foundation, Ingram LLP, nARCHITECTS, Studio Libeskind and WRNS Studio; Patron sponsors Bednark Studio, Civitas, COOKFOX, Grimshaw, Perkins & Will, PNC Bank, and Stantec; and Supporting sponsors Daraja Capital, Innisfree, Signature Bank, and Thinc Design.

About Urban Design Forum

Urban Design Forum mobilizes civic leaders to confront the defining issues facing New York City’s built environment. We are an independent membership organization that empowers professionals of diverse backgrounds, industries and perspectives to shape a better future for all New Yorkers. We investigate complex challenges in the built environment, study alternative approaches from cities around the world, and advance progressive strategies to build a more dynamic and democratic city.

See all work at urbandesignforum.org.

About Van Alen Institute

Van Alen Institute helps create equitable cities through inclusive design. In an equitable city, every person is civically engaged, regardless of income or personal circumstances. To achieve that goal, inclusive design supports a community-driven public realm.

For more than 125 years, our purposeful community engagement, convening capacity, and global interdisciplinary network have produced profound transformations in the public realm of New York City and beyond. With a core belief in an interdisciplinary approach to design, the Van Alen team has backgrounds in architecture, urban planning, public health, civic advocacy, community engagement, and arts and culture.

See all work at vanalen.org.