Dinah Thompson: 34, black, single mother of three kids (ages 2, 5 & 7). Bachelor’s in accounting, works for the city. Lives in 2BR apartment on 18th floor of public housing high-rise, central Harlem. Recently had knee surgery, active in community affairs, stays up on news and social media with laptop. Two youngest kids stay cool sleeping in living room with AC; she also worries about high temperatures in building lobby and elevator.
The team grounded its solution in an existing NYCHA public housing development called Polo Grounds, the building resident Michelle Holms (LINK) has called home since 1968.
“When I moved there, we used to have beautiful gardens in front of every building,” Holmes recalled. Residents gardened and socialized outside, and children played on terraces that lay on each level of the building.
Now, 45 years later, Holmes has watched as the development’s gardens have been removed, surrounding trees chopped down, and community green space all but eliminated. The terraces are now off-limits – if you’re seen loitering on them, you’re slapped with a fine and a threat of eviction.
So the team started thinking about ways to empower current Polo Grounds residents, to let them reclaim control of public space—and, of course, to allow them to cool down in the hot summer months. “We wanted to transform the building using resources that already exist,” explained team member Elisaveta Petkova, project director at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness and scholar in the Earth Institute of Columbia University.
Their solution was two-fold. First, much like “community cooling” team [LINK], they proposed converting the first-floor lobby into a community gathering place that could be used as a cooling center on hot days and a social space year-round. Instead of cooking meals in a hot, cramped apartment, residents would be able to use a shared kitchen on extra-hot days. Instead of making the trek to a public cooling center blocks away, residents would have easy access to a center of their own.
Second, the team proposed opening access to the terraces, which could increase ventilation flow and allow residents to access fresh air and green space from each level. In a 30-story building such as Polo Grounds, standing on the balcony is much safer than standing on a roof.
Both of these spaces are currently heavily regulated: signs enforce limitations on how and where residents can spend their time, and NYCHA pays police to monitor activity.
“If you activate underutilized public spaces with a positive purpose, it pushes out negative activity,” explained team member Emily Maxwell, director of the Nature Conservancy’s NYC Urban Conservation Program. By removing barriers to entry and providing guidelines for best use, the group believes that these public spaces will stay well-maintained.
Not every NYCHA building has terraces to reopen, of course. But in giving residents more control over their space, and reimagining that space as green, cool, and open, the team believed it had developed a replicable model of fostering physical health as well as social harmony.