Reimagining the Civic Commons


The Department of Fun, Health and Happiness: how NYC is reimagining public places for people

Mitch Silver at Civic Commons Studio #3 in Akron; photo credit: Tim Fitzwater

Last week in Akron, project team members from the five Reimagining the Civic Commons cities gathered for a third time to share the learning and challenges of their work. The second day of “Civic Commons Studio #3” was kicked off by visionary New York City Parks Commissioner Mitch Silver, who runs what he calls the “Department of Fun, Health and Happiness.” Silver gave an inspired presentation to attendees about the vital link between a city’s public places and the health and well-being of residents.

Silver is a long-time and accomplished city planner, having led the city of Raleigh’s planning department and worked as a public and private sector planner in New York. After being named Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Parks Commissioner in 2014, he realized that he was doing more planning in parks that he’d ever done as a bona fide city planner—he’s now responsible for a $4 billion capital budget and 500 active parks projects across the city.

But his planner’s brain does lead him to understand the intimate and system-wide connection of great parks and the functioning of the city as an organism. “Parks do not sit in isolation, they are connected to other things in the city,” Silver said. “It is a system that is vital to how we function, and you need quality parks to have a quality city.”

This systems approach to thinking about parks led Silver and his department to produce the Framework for an Equitable Future, a commitment to New York residents to create thriving public spaces for everyone. In describing this system-wide planning approach, Silver was able to leave Civic Commons project team members with some important guidelines:

Park or parking lot?

Equity is fairness.

Silver reminded us that as children, we all understood whether something was fair or unfair—and he encouraged people working in the civic commons to incorporate fundamental fairness into their projects from the ground up. He also reminded us that the way we take care of our parks—and the services and amenities we provide—should be fundamentally fair for the people who use them across neighborhoods.

“It is not just proximity to parks, but quality of parks,” Silver said. “We asked ourselves whether we were being fair in the New York City Parks Department in how we provided and cared for parks across the city, and we found many parks that had received less than $250,000 in investment in 10 years’ time,” Silver said.

With the public’s help, the department chose 67 projects to revitalize public “parks” that were encased in fencing, paved entirely over or included little to no places to sit or play. These parks were transformed with the help of local community members into places where people can be active, sit and rest, play or exercise a dog. More importantly, they were an important signal to neglected communities that the city cared.

The sidewalk adjacent to the park should be considered the outer park – Frederick Law Olmsted

Serve the needs of today—and tomorrow.

Silver’s approach to redesigning public places includes thinking about the diverse needs and wants of the people who will use the place, not just listening to the loudest voices. Even though it is often the older, more wealthy residents who show up to meetings and voice their opinions most robustly, Silver urges his parks staff to also consider the needs of younger generations—Gen X and Millennials—who interact with their friends and neighbors and often use public places in new ways.

“Millennials volunteer more, are more purpose-filled and think differently than older generations,” Silver said. “We are conscious of generations to come when we plan for parks, which will be around for a long time. Younger generations are more attracted to experiences rather than consumer goods. Think about what experiences they want in their public places and then design for these generations as well.”

Create a seamless public realm.

Silver and his team understand that cities control or own outright vast amounts of space that is often underutilized or downright ignored, and they think about how to use this space—the streets and sidewalks and even crossroads like Times Square—to provide quality public places for residents.

“We try to create places where you don’t know where the park begins or ends—a seamless public realm,” he said. “Forty percent of New York City is owned by the city and there are 130 million visitors to New York City parks every year, more than the State of Florida and Disney combined. We work with the Transportation Department to use sidewalks as ‘outer parks’ in our designs, and remove fences and other obstructions to encourage people to move and enjoy the street to the sidewalk to the park and back again.”

Silver’s efforts mirror much of the work of Reimagining the Civic Commons cities, which are creating a connected and seamless realm of the civic commons out of what was once considered individual parks, libraries, community centers and trails. He also reminded all gathered that public space is more important to the lives of people than we realize.

“Public places are where life happens,” he said. “You may sleep in your homes, but you live in a public place,” he said. “That’s where you connect with other people, get some exercise, meet your friends, get married.”

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