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Case powerfully made on behalf of city parks

THE case for parks being vital to the health and well-being of a city has been powerfully made by the commissioner in charge of New York’s parks.

Commissioner Mitchell Silver was, this evening, the special guest in an online debate hosted by the Edinburgh conservation organisation, the Cockburn Association.

By profession a planner, Silver is a political appointee by the city’s mayor and oversees almost 2,000 parks, 2.6m trees, 1,200 monuments, 1,000 playgrounds, 10,000 employees (of whom some 400 are landscape architects, architects and engineers), a ten-year capital budget of five billion dollars and an annual operations budget of half a billion US dollars. 

His department also manages 400 concession contracts – for restaurants, ice rinks, etc – which help generate $65m a year, which is mostly (but not entirely) fed into the parks budget.

During the last six years, 700 capital projects have been completed, including improving existing parks and creating new ones.

He began: “I’ve been a planner my entire career, and, about six years ago, I was approached to see whether I could run the city’s parks system. When I was initially contacted, I was wondering why the mayor was reaching out to me. I [said] I was a planner and, if I was to run a parks department, it would be about 80 per cent operations and about 20 per cent planning. And that’s when the mayor said, ‘That’s why I want you, we have got to re-think our parks system for the 21st century’.”

He continued: “In New York city, parks mean so much. They are our front yard, they are our backyard. Because we are a very [densely-populated] city, people thrive in parks. We cannot have a great city like New York without our parks. Period.

“In New York, people may eat and sleep in their apartments, but they live in the public realm. That’s where life takes place. So, whether it is a large park or a small park, they are filled. They are places where people connect, they create memories, and so, in New York city, [people] demand those places.”

And in a candid, open and, at least once, emotional interview, conducted by Cockburn Association chair, Cliff Hague, Silver went one: “My top line is we want to pursue equity and access. Any park design involves intense public engagement, and I don’t mean outreach, but true engagement: to listen to the stories, understand what has been going on, to make sure the design does not trigger displacement.

“We want always take a look at who is ‘in the room’ [when engaging] and if the demographics don’t seem right, over-represented by one group, we do our due diligence to make sure all voices are heard. Because parks are for all, and I underline all.”

Pertinent to the use of Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh, Commissioner Silver said that any commercial enterprises – such as music concerts – in New York parks require to be almost entirely free to attend (with a maximum 20 per cent of the audience paying, as ‘VIPs’).

A special events team operates to ration commercial use of parks and to allow for the parks ‘to heal’, afterwards. “If it’s raining, then it’s off!”

“Our parks are not a commodity. We have, in the United States, something called the ‘public trust doctrine’. Parks and recreation fit into that category.”

It’s down to value, not costs, such as the value of children’s laughter. “Great cities are made by great parks. Places that are liveable, it’s about great parks – in all neighbourhoods. We have to understand that, to create great cities, requires quality neighbourhoods, quality public spaces.

“When we talk about cost versus value, go beyond the dollars and talk about the liveability, the memories that are created where [for instance, children] can thrive, connect with friends, get healthy and be good citizens.

“There are studies all over that when you do not care for public spaces, you start to see crime increase and also anxiety and stress. The first healthcare worker are parks.”

And he ended: “Parks, to me, are vital to an essential city. And it’s not just a side amenity, a city that does that truly undervalues not only the parks but the people who live there. People are now looking for proximity to public space, having a meaningful lifestyle – whether you are a child, a teenager, a young couple or elderly. It serves an incredible purpose, 12 months of the year. If there is one thing I have to underscore, it’s start thinking of the value and not the cost.”

A recording of the debate is expected online soon, uploaded by the Cockburn Association.

Watch a recording of the event on the video sharing platform, YouTube, here.

Pictured: East Princes Street Gardens

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