BY BETSY ANDERSON
If public planning and design efforts seem to yield increasingly to private-sector pressure (consider the developer-fueled High Line), Mitchell Silver may promise some relief. Silver’s appointment as the new parks commissioner for New York City was recently announced, and his respected 25-year track record in urban planning suggests that he will bring a collaborative approach to park management that balances social, health, environmental, and economic concerns—in short, a holistic vision for parks reminiscent of the days of Olmsted.
Silver, a former president of the American Planning Association, leaves his post as the chief city planner in Raleigh, North Carolina, to join the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio. The mayor praised Silver to a crowd gathered for the announcement and described him as an experienced “visionary” who is capable of restoring equity to the city’s parks (de Blasio also noted the link between underfunded parks and larger issues of income inequality, a primary focus of his campaign). Silver emphasized that as a planner, he considers the city’s parks to be part of a single system, of vital civic infrastructure: “Parks do not sit in isolation,” he observed.
This perspective is at odds with the current management of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, which has sustained an inadequate general operations budget for two decades. The result has been a piecemeal allocation of maintenance funds, as private organizations have stepped in to fill the shortfall for iconic parks in affluent neighborhoods, leaving the rest to fend for themselves. The consequence, according to Michael Powell of The New York Times, is not a comprehensive network of parks but “a feudal landscape of the privileged and underprivileged.”
The announcement of Silver’s nomination comes at a tense time in the funding debate surrounding New York City parks. Yawning gaps between the maintenance budgets of parks with conservancies—including Central Park, Prospect Park, and the High Line—and those without prompted State Senator Daniel L. Squadron (D) to introduce a bill that would redirect 20 percent of funds from large conservancies into a collective account that would be redistributed to remaining parks. The resulting outcry from conservancy advocates has further galvanized support for stable baseline funding at the city level.
Silver’s long background in community-based planning is encouraging to those on all sides of the discussion, and his rigorous embrace of economic development in Raleigh is particularly relevant given New York’s cash-strapped coffers. A Brooklyn native and graduate of the Pratt Institute and Hunter College, Silver is no stranger to participatory planning in the five boroughs. In 1999, he was hired by the environmental justice organization WE ACT to facilitate the community design process for West Harlem Piers Park, sparing the site from a large-scale hotel development while gathering diverse public support for a $20 million park in an underserved neighborhood. West Harlem Piers Park exemplifies Silver’s approach, which is founded on a collaborative process that is committed to economic development and social equity alike. As he explained in a posting for Citiwire, “Planners shall seek social justice by working to expand choice and opportunity for all.”
For landscape architects, Silver’s appointment heralds new opportunities to cooperate with communities, engage in much-needed park revitalization projects, and revive a fruitful partnership with urban planners. It also reminds us that the design and planning professions share a responsibility to develop public space intelligently, to ensure that public expenditure results in a maximum return on investment to help support a healthy local tax base. “People just think [planning] is about regulations, it’s about stamping permits, but a lot of it is about keeping a strong tax base and using land more effectively,” Silver explained in a 2013 interview with the Raleigh Public Record reporter Jennifer Wig.
The selection of Silver by de Blasio signals that the administration recognizes the need for a comprehensive long-term plan to shape New York’s park system as shared community infrastructure. Silver’s nomination also challenges us to consider more deeply what it means to design for equity.
Betsy Anderson is an MLA candidate at the University of Washington.