A SALUTE TO UNION SQUARE: Making the district greener and cleaner


Take a look around Union Square Park at the first signs of spring. Trees are budding, the Greenmarket is filled with daffodils. Local employees, residents, families and visitors are out in force to take advantage of this beautiful green space in the heart of Manhattan complete with benches, bistro tables, a playground and dog run.

It’s the start of the park’s high season, when thousands of visitors a day come to enjoy a pause in their schedule, connect with friends, pick up fresh bread at the Greenmarket and participate in the close to 200 scheduled events on tap through the fall.

This welcoming locale doesn’t just happen by chance. It’s the result of round-the-clock work by the Union Square Partnership Business Improvement District team and their neighborhood partners who strive to keep the district looking its best year-round.

Visitors leave behind more than 178,000 bags of trash in the area each year. The Partnership has made reducing this waste a top priority and its efforts are attracting interest from other organizations.

“We are proud to be investing in a more sustainable future through our waste initiatives and as part of our overall efforts to advocate and improve the Union Square-14th St. district,” said Jennifer E. Falk, USP’s executive director.

Keeping Union Square Park looking good is one of the Union Square Partnership’s priorities. (Courtesy Union Square Partnership)

Last spring, USP spearheaded a pioneering study with Columbia University’s Earth Institute and Sustainability Management Program to dig into its garbage and determine its makeup. A team of graduate students combed through 600 pounds of neighborhood trash and concluded that an impressive 84 percent or more could be diverted from landfills through separation of recyclable, compostable and recoverable waste.

The findings led USP to take action. With support from evian and Danone North America, USP engaged IDEO, a global design firm, to design a prototype for a new waste-collection system, plus a consumer-awareness campaign. Last fall, IDEO staffers asked people in Union Square Park what would motivate and help them to dispose of trash properly — be it a coffee cup, food packaging, newspaper or water bottle — so that it could be recycled or composted.

The survey’s takeaways included the need for simple instructions, multiple languages and design that reflects the area. Based on IDEO’s findings, USP plans to pilot a new public waste-collection system and education campaign in Union Square Park.

USP is working closely with the local business community to help companies reduce waste and improve sustainability practices. In October, USP hosted its first-ever Zero Waste Forum, featuring sustainability experts from across New York City, who shared their insights on how to reduce waste in offices, institutions and food establishments; how to comply with New York City’s recycling and organic waste regulations; and how to engage customers, staff and vendors with the efforts. USP has also issued a “Zero Waste Resource Guide” for businesses and organizations.

To help reduce food and packaging waste from the neighborhood’s flourishing food scene, USP is working closely with several local businesses, including Breads Bakery, Dig Inn, Think Coffee, Pret a Manger and Union Square Hospitality Group, to come up with solutions that can be used by others.

Participants at the Union Square Partnership’s first Zero Waste Forum. (Courtesy Union Square Partnership)

“Union Square Partnership’s Zero Waste forum and waste audits are helping us live up to our values by taking better care of our environment,” said Ben Turndorf, digital marketing manager for Union Square Hospitality Group. “We’re grateful for USP’s support in our continued efforts to be a conscientious and contributing member of our community.”

In Union Square Park, new waste-reduction efforts are already underway. For the first time, USP implemented a Zero Waste strategy at its 23rd annual Harvest in the Square, one of New York City’s most celebrated culinary events and fundraisers. Guests were given a compostable fork at the door and asked to reuse it, and all paper products and containers were compostable. These strategies helped to meet the city’s standards for a zero-waste event by diverting 90 percent of the event’s trash from landfill. The 2018 event raised $430,000, up from $367,000 in 2017.

Year-round, USP works day in and day out with community members to maintain this urban oasis and the 14th St. neighborhood. The BID’s 22-member Clean Team sweeps sidewalks, power-washes high-traffic corners, paints street furniture and removes graffiti. During the winter season, team members salt and clear sidewalks, bus stops, catch basins and areas around fire hydrants to keep the streets clear and safe.

The members of the Clean Team are a key part of the Union Square Partnership’s effort to keep the square looking its best. (Courtesy Union Square Partnership)

In warmer months, the Clean Team sets up the park’s signature bistro tables, chairs and umbrellas on the park’s west side, the center lawn, the West Plaza, at the 138-year-old James Fountain and throughout the Broadway pedestrian plaza. As neighborhood parents know very well and visitors with kids quickly discover, Union Square Park boasts a large playground complete with a shiny steel dome, checkerboard rubber floor mats, and three spinning rides, plus a more traditional lot for tots, which USP oversees and maintains.

“The core mission of any BID is to keep the district clean and safe, and the Union Square Partnership’s Clean Team and operations managers have done a phenomenal job improving this area over the last several decades,” said William Abramson, director of sales and leasing at Buchbinder & Warren Realty Group LLC. “Our board and community are fortunate to have Operations Manager McLawrence Glynn and Director of Operations Tom DiRusso leading the charge and implementing a host of field projects to benefit the neighborhood.”

On the park’s west side, USP unveiled a new seating area with moveable bistro tables, chairs and the Partnership’s signature teal-colored umbrellas, which were added last summer in response to feedback from community members.

USP has also upgraded the park’s irrigation system, and worked with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation to add new landscaping, including more than 100 planters.

In March, the 14th Street Y honored Jennifer Falk, the Union Square Partnership’s executive director, center, and the Partnership with its Community Builder Award. Joining Falk in accepting the award were, from left, William Abramson, of Buchbinder & Warren, and Lynne Brown, N.Y.U. senior vice president and the BID’s president and board co-chairperson. Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein, executive director of the 14th Street Y, is at far right.

USP’s work in the community is getting noticed. In March, at its annual gala, the 14th Street Y honored USP and Executive Director Falk, with its inaugural Community Builder Award. The award “recognizes champions who go above and beyond to cultivate and strengthen their communities and, in turn, inspire others — individuals, organizations and local businesses — to do the same,” according to the 14th Street Y.

“The 14th Street Y could not think of a better recipient for our first Community Builder Award than the Union Square Partnership and Jennifer Falk,” said Jordan Brackett, associate executive director for advancement and planning. “The Union Square Partnership has led the way in reinvigorating one of the most important public spaces in this city and has helped transform our neighborhood. I am proud to serve on USP’s board along with so many individuals who are so dedicated to our community. Jennifer is a visionary and transformative leader who is taking Union Square Partnership to impressive heights.”

“We were incredibly humbled by this recognition from one of our community’s most valued anchors,” said Falk. “We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished and are working diligently with our expanding network of neighborhood partners to keep up the momentum.”