Build more urban parks and have happier city dwellers


Green lung: The renowned 340ha Central Park in New York City receives 42 million visitors annually, generating US$1bil in revenue. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Anthony Quintano

“Density and open spaces go hand in hand,” says Mitchell J. Silver, commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

While the statement might seem counter-intuitive at first glance, the award-winning city planner is actually referring to maintaining a balance – a balance between built-up and open spaces, something he knows a lot about coming from the crowded Big Apple.

Silver was in Kuala Lumpur recently to speak at the 8th International Conference on World Class Sustainable Cities 2016, jointly organised by the Real Estate and Housing Developers’ Association (Kuala Lumpur), Pertubuhan Akitek Malaysia and Malaysian Institute of Planners. The conference carried the theme “City Spaces, Public Places”.

There’s an urgent need to explore the theme: according to www.un.org, half of the world’s population – that’s 3.5 billion people – live in cities today. By 2030, almost 60% will live in urban areas. And in the next 50 years, world population will rise to over 9 billion people.

Rapid urbanisation is putting pressure on resources and our environment, affecting public health and wellbeing. The world’s cities occupy just 3% of the planet’s land space but account for 60%-80% of energy consumption and 75% of carbon emissions.

Mitchell J. Silver loves his job, he says: 'I watch people walk off the busy streets and into Central Park, and all a sudden you will see them smiling and their whole body relaxing.' Photo: The Star/Norafifi Ehsan
Mitchell J. Silver loves his job, he says: 'I watch people walk off the busy streets and into Central Park, and all a sudden you will see them smiling and their whole body relaxing.' Photo: The Star/Norafifi Ehsan

Last September, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by various countries as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Goal 11 states that we must “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. One of the targets under this goal is to “provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities by 2030”.

Silver certainly agrees with that goal: “As we grow and build our cities, we have to preserve and cherish our open spaces,” he said in his talk entitled “New York’s City Public Spaces – Successful Economic and Social City Revitalisation”.

As the first planner to hold New York City’s Parks and Recreation commissioner’s post, which he assumed in May 2014, Silver oversees the management and planning for and operations of nearly 12,000ha of land, which includes parks, playgrounds, beaches, marinas, recreation centres, wilderness areas and other assets.

Silver brings with him nearly 30 years of experience in the areas of comprehensive planning, place-making and implementation strategies.

In 2012, New York-based online publication Urban Times named him one of the top international thought leaders of the built environment today. In 2013, UBM Future Cities (a global online community geared towards building, supporting and designing the world’s future cities) named Silver one of the top 100 City Innovators in the world.

Britain’s Royal Town Planning Institute made him an honorary lifetime member in the same year while in 2014, he was inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Planning Association.

Silver is also the man behind innovative projects like Harlem on the River. Completed in May 2009, the Harlem River Park is an esplanade waterfront addition to the Upper West Side. The park hosts environmental education workshops, features local art and offers an open space where residents can exercise and relax.

According to centralparknyc.org, Sheep Meadow was historically designated as a ‘quiet zone’ and is Central Park’s largest lawn without ballfields that is meant for quiet picnicking and relaxation. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Ingfbruno
According to centralparknyc.org, Sheep Meadow was historically designated as a ‘quiet zone’ and is Central Park’s largest lawn without ballfields that is meant for quiet picnicking and relaxation. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Ingfbruno

Prior to his current role, the New York City native served as the chief planning and development officer and planning director for the city of Raleigh in North Carolina.

When Silver first took on his post as commissioner, he was tasked by Mayor Bill de Blasio with rethinking New York’s park systems for future generations.

“That’s when I looked at equity, accessibility and safety as the city grows and urbanises. You cannot have quality development without quality open space,” says Silver during an interview after his talk.

Silver also initiated a method for measuring the health of park systems and spearheaded the Community Parks Initiative, which looks into parks that have been neglected for more than 20 years. Out of 2,000 parks in New York City, it was found that 215 had not received any funding for over two decades.

“Over 200 neighbourhoods had been left out – that was not fair and had to change,” he emphasises.

The High Line Park ingeniously turned a discontinued elevated rail line into a narrow but long park running above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/David Berkowitz
The High Line Park ingeniously turned a discontinued elevated rail line into a narrow but long park running above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/David Berkowitz

He was then given a budget of US$285mil (RM1.2bil) to transform 67 of those parks, and together with his staff – without hiring contractors – they revitalised another 85 parks on their own by adding more greenery and making them more people-friendly.

As a whole, under the initiative, a total of 26.5ha of urban parkland improved and 35 capital projects provided improved park amenities and access to approximately 220,000 New Yorkers who live within a 10-minute walk of these parks.

Currently, 76.4% of New Yorkers live within a 10-minute walk of a park. The goal is to increase this figure to 85% by 2030.

Green public spaces not only offer a better quality of life for city dwellers but have economic benefits for the city as well. For example Central Park, which receives 42 million visitors annually, generates US$1bil (RM4.1bil) a year while the US$153mil (RM630mil) High Line has generated over US$2bil (RM8.2bil) in new investment in the form of development projects around it. (The High Line is a 2.3km-long park built on a disused elevated freight rail line above Manhattan’s streets.)

According to the Bryant Park Corporation, after Bryant Park received a US$23mil (RM95mil) investment in 1988, asking rents near the park increased 115% to 225% compared to 41% to 73% in the surrounding submarkets between 1990 and 2002.

“In New York, there are 130 million visitors to our parks every year, which is more than Florida (109 million) receives, and that’s where Disneyland is,” says Silver.

Previously abandoned, the Hunter’s Point South Park waterfront park today includes a playground, a dog run, a bikeway, a waterside promenade, a basketball court, and a 1,200sqm pavilion with food outlets. Photo: HuntersPointSouth.com
Previously abandoned, the Hunter’s Point South Park waterfront park today includes a playground, a dog run, a bikeway, a waterside promenade, a basketball court, and a 1,200sqm pavilion with food outlets. Photo: HuntersPointSouth.com

An upcoming project is the next phase of Hunter’s Point South Park, a waterfront park that used to be an abandoned post-industrial area in the neighbourhood of Long Island City. It has since been transformed into a space that includes a playground, a dog run, a bikeway, a waterside promenade, a basketball court, and a 1,200sqm pavilion with food outlets.

The new phase of the park will include a peninsula, a promontory and two viewing points, one facing the New York skyline and the other, Newton Creek, a 5km long estuary that forms part of the border between the city’s boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens.

How does Silver envision New York City 20 years from now?

“Hopefully, more green space. The city will continue to regenerate certain sites, but when you see these new sights, they come with these incredible public space around them. That’s what makes New York livable.

“Even though we are a dense city of 8.5 million people, we don’t feel it because we have so much outdoor choices to enjoy like the High Line, Hudson River Park, East River Esplanade and Central Park. I see that continuing in New York, and more neighbourhoods being regenerated too.”

At the 10th Avenue Square point in the High Line Park, a window provides views of the streets below. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ bbaunach
At the 10th Avenue Square point in the High Line Park, a window provides views of the streets below. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/bbaunach

Silver loves his job and feels he is also a commissioner of “health and happiness”.

“What we do brings so much joy. I watch people walk off the busy streets and into Central Park, and all a sudden you will see them smiling and their whole body relaxing. I love giving that joy and happiness to people; it’s refreshing. I love what I do and hope that as the city evolves, density and open space go together.”

Silver firmly believes that park planning must include the people.

“We don’t want to talk to planners or landscape architects, but regular people, artists, placemakers and find out what they expect from parks in the future.

“Plan the public realm first, because you cannot get it back later. Public space should not be an afterthought. Focus on the experience of place. Then the development comes along,” he says.

His biggest challenge at the moment?

“I have a US$3bil (RM12bil) capital budget, and I can’t spend it quick enough, because we don’t have the capacity. We can build about 100 projects a year but we need to know how to expedite these projects to get these incredible assets out to the public. So believe it or not, that’s my challenge! Good problem?” he says with a smile.

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