Land Use and Sustainable Development Conference Keynote Speech: New York City Department of Parks and Recreation Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver, FAICP Discusses What Is Next for New York City’s Parks

On December 5th, 2014, Pace Law School’s Land Use Law Center held its thirteenth annual Land Use and Sustainable Development Conference in the Judicial Institute on the Pace Law School campus in White Plains, New York. This conference gathers professionals and academics from throughout New York and the nation to discuss topics, trends, and issues in the field of land use law and sustainable development. Over 250 attorneys and planners attend this daylong event featuring speeches and panels. The topic of this year’s conference is Transitioning Communities, concentrating on how communities and municipalities can effectively begin and continue to transition into a more sustainable and green community. Transitioning a community requires planning for and providing adequate green-space and parks for residents and community members. To offer guidance on this topic, Pace’s Land Use Law Center arranged for the Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation, Mitchell J. Silver, FAICP to present a keynote speech on the planning for parks.


Recently named Commissioner by Mayor de Blasio in May of 2014, Commissioner Silver, a New York City native, has immense knowledge and passion of planning for parks resulting from his long, successful history in planning. Prior to his position with New York City, Commissioner Silver was the President of the American Planning Association (APA) and has nearly 30 years and various awards in city planning. He also worked as the Chief Planning & Development Director and Planning Director for Raleigh, North Carolina; Planning Director for New York City’s Department of Planning; a principal of a New York City based Planning Firm; Town Manager in New Jersey; and Deputy Planning Director in Washington, DC. In his new position as Commissioner for NYC’s Department of Parks and Recreation, Commissioner Silver manages nearly 30,000 acres of New York City parks, playgrounds, beaches, marinas, recreation centers, wilderness areas, and various other lands.


In his keynote address at the Land Use Conference titled What’s Next, Commissioner Silver discussed and explained his plan to help improve and increase New York City’s parks and provide better park access for all of New York City’s residents and visitors. His plan includes three overarching goals: equity, resiliency, and technology.
Commissioner Silver’s first goal as Parks Commissioner is based on one of the Three E’s of Sustainability: equitability. His goal not only focuses on increasing the quantity of parks in New York City; but also focuses on increasing the quality of those parks. He strives to determine which areas need more parks and which parks need more improvement and funding. He believes that everyone should have fair and equal access to quality parks near their homes and work, but he understands the reality that some lower income areas may not be receiving the park access or funding to provide adequate parks.


In his first move towards improving the quality of NYC’s parks, Commissioner Silver looked at the previous funding of each park and found about 250 parks that received less than $250,000 in funding over the past 20 years. This helped indicate which parks were in the highest need of assistance and approval. So he concentrated on and visited each of those parks to determine which ones need the most improvement and assistance. Through this research, he was able to determine which parks were in need of simple, quick fixes as well as determine thirty-five park that’s were in the greatest need of funding and assistance. This hands-on, individualized approach allows for parks to get specific attention and improvements they need, making them more suitable and enjoyable for the communities they serve. But he doesn’t anticipate this being a one step process; he plans on continuous monitoring of New York City’s parks and the funding they receive in order to ensure equitable distribution of funds and services to ensure equal access to high-quality parks for all New York City residents.


His second goal for the New York City parks comes in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in the form of resiliency and sustainability. After Sandy, Commission Silver and the Parks Department now understand that there must be other factors considered in planning for and designing parks; one factor in particular is the discovery of surprise flood zones. These are areas that were not considered at-risk areas until the tragic storm hit. Commissioner Silver plans to prevent such disasters to parks by planning according to flood zones when designing parks. The Department of Parks and Recreation is now more conscious of potential risks that flooding may have on parks, which lead to the Department developing a manual for designing and planning parks in flood zones. This new manual, set to be released in 2015, will offer guidelines for various site types and recommend types of plants and structures that at-risk parks should include to withstand or prevent flooding in the event of similar storms.


In the address’ final section, Commissioner Silver discussed plans for improving and innovating the technological programs used to maintain and restore healthy NYC parks. These new technologies are aimed towards analyzing each of the NYC parks and determining everyone parks health. These new technologies will provide the department with information about which aspects of specific parks are in need of improvement and funding to better allocate time and money to parks to ensure healthy, sufficient parks throughout the city.


The department also plans to utilize technology that better engages the public in what Commissioner Silver deemed to be park “caretaking.” Community engagement in caretaking will increase the public’s participation in increasing and maintaining park beauty and health which will help the department determine aspects of specific parks that the public would like to see more time and money spent to protect. Input from the community on how parks are used and enjoyed will help create a more efficient and productive system of managing parks.


Through these three overarching goals, Commissioner Silver strives to improve the approach taken in planning, designing, and managing public spaces; also known as “placemaking.” Commissioner Silver thinks placemaking is a two-dimensional approach. This two-dimensions of the approach should provide park-goers with an experience of place and memory of place which will allow park-goers to sit back and enjoy the surroundings inside the park as well as take with them memorable experiences that will keep them coming back and appreciating the parks. Commissioner Silver strongly believes that all of these goals and strategies will lead New York City and its residents into a bright green future for generations to enjoy.

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