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.
4. What’s already age-friendly about New York City, and what about the city can be age-friendlier?
In terms of already being age-friendly, number one is definitely the public transit system. New York is a well-connected city. Virtually anyone can get anywhere in the city, and New York has great walk scores in most of its neighborhoods. We have a goal that there will be an open space or park within a 10-minute walk of every home. That’s certainly something we can improve on over time.
New York is an age-friendly city, but I want to look for the impediments that exist for seniors and for people who have disabilities. I want to make sure that paving patterns are smooth and easy to walk on. I pay attention to paving patterns — if I’m in a wheelchair, if I have stroller, if I have a cane, what is my experience like while I’m getting around? I think that New York and other cities are doing a good job, but — as we see with our aging population — steps matter, slopes matter, the distance to sit down somewhere matters, restrooms and access to water and comfort stations matter.
In order to start thinking about the experience of our aging population, I think we need to walk with them and spend a day with them to experience the parks and our public realm from their perspective. Some older people walk a little bit slower and having a refuge in the middle of a large street may not be enough.
New York is pursuing “Vision Zero” [an initiative that believes all traffic fatalities can be prevented] to make our streets safer for our pedestrians. Some cities use paratransit as a default. But I strongly believe that as people age, having places where they can walk is a higher priority than having places where they can be picked up and dropped off.
5. What does your ideal Livable Community look like?
I call my livable community an “equitable city.” It has fair access to goods and services, and that means it has a variety of modes of transportation — walking, biking and transit. It has access to jobs. It is equitable in terms of where people can afford to live, with different densities and different housing types. Its residents have access to goods and services and quality schools.
To me, a livable community has not only an engaged public but also engaged elected officials who understand it’s not just about building a community of today but it’s about building a community of tomorrow. My livable community is a place that embraces quality of life for all generations — for the young, for our millennials, for families and seniors — and it thinks about the experience of living in a city and not just about the land use. It’s a place where people move to and never want to leave. And they don’t have to leave. They can grow up, raise a family and age in place. It’s a community where people have the social network and support structure they need. That’s what I call a livable, complete community, and it’s everything that AARP is pursuing.
Aldea Douglas is an urban planner, certified aging-in-place specialist and project manager on the AARP Livable Communities team.