Livable Communities Interview

5 Questions for Mitchell Silver

AARP visits with the award-winning, internationally renowned planner right before he starts work as New York City’s Commissioner of Parks and Recreation

Mitchell Silver, NYC Parks Commissioner

Mitchell Silver, commissioner, New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. — Joe Szurszewski

When New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, tapped Mitchell Silver to become the city’s Commissioner of Parks and Recreation, he was offering an invitation home to one of the nation’s most respected urban planners (and past president of the American Planning Association).

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Silver was raised in Brooklyn, earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in New York (from Pratt Institute and Hunter College) and spent several years working for New York's Department of City Planning and the Manhattan borough president’s office. To move into the New York City parks position on May 12, Silver relocated from Raleigh, N.C., where he’d been the Director of Planning and Development since 2005.

New York City is a member of the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities, and Silver’s plans for the city’s 29,000 acres of parks and recreational spaces include several examples of how age-friendly practices can be implemented in a vast and diverse metropolitan community.

1. When people think about parks, they most likely imagine playgrounds, playing fields and activities for young, very active people. How do — or should — parks and green spaces serve older adults?

First, parks and density go together. If you’re in a dense environment, you need access to places where you can meditate, where you can engage in recreation and where you can socialize. Parks are public places that serve multiple purposes; they’re kind of like the city’s living room. In any city, particularly in larger cities, as people age they need access to nearby, walkable places where they can enjoy themselves and even exercise.

If you visit China, you’ll see people playing games in one park location and exercising in another. The parks are gathering places where people come to meet. When I was in China, most of the people I saw in the parks happened to be seniors. My hope is that the same thing can happen and probably does happen right now in New York City. Sometimes people just want to see and be seen and to sit and watch other people walk and talk and have conversations. Parks can be places where grandparents can take their grandchildren for a walk and to play. Parks become a stage where people can participate in activities and see so many things happen.

2. There’s often a tension between the desire for development and the desire for green space. What’s your argument on behalf of green space?

You cannot have private spaces without public spaces. Now, I’m talking about the whole public realm — sidewalks, alleys, parks, open spaces. In order to have density and development, you need open space. They go hand in hand. To me, that’s critically important to any project we put forward. Even if it’s a sidewalk, that public realm needs to be gracious, and it needs to have enough room for the buildings to breathe.

For any project it’s important to remember that green space can’t just be leftover space. It has to be active, usable, public space that is designed into the project. It has to be meaningful space that serves a specific purpose for residents. It has to be accessible to people who have disabilities, to seniors and to adults pushing a stroller. Green spaces needs to be thought through so they complement the development.

3. Parks and outdoor amenities such as benches, picnic tables and amphitheaters can be gathering places. If a neighborhood lacks outdoor features, how else can local leaders and residents foster community and create a sense of place?

There are a lot of different ways people are approaching this. While I was serving as the planning director for the City of Raleigh, we implemented “kickstarter” campaigns for people to fund furniture projects for different parks. And don't forget about the public realm: I’ve seen projects where residents place temporary swings along a street just to add some vitality. People are using parklets — both temporary and permanent ones — to add more to the public realm.

A lot of things can be done within existing playgrounds and within the street. Each community is different based on its needs and demographics, but — if you lead with creativity — there are ways to achieve permanent solutions that are low-cost and low-maintenance. You have to look specifically at what works for a particular community and what’s authentic to the local population. There are loads of ways small interventions can pay big dividends.

Next page: Age-Friendly New York. »

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