Eighty days into his first term as mayor, Bill de Blasio has finally named a parks commissioner for New York City—and he went out of state to find him.
Mitchell Silver, Chief Planning and Development Officer of Raleigh, North Carolina, is no stranger to New York City, though: a Brooklyn native, Silver earned degrees at both Pratt Institute and Hunter College, and worked in the city’s planning department in the late 1980s.
De Blasio appointed Silver to oversee the city’s 1,900 parks and 29,000 acres of green space, with a focus that falls squarely in line with de Blasio’s now familiar “Tale of Two Cities” narrative. Silver is specifically tasked with addressing inequality in the city’s park system.
“No one is more qualified to usher in a new era of expanded access and sustainability than Mitchell Silver,” the mayor said in a press release.
Equity Mantle No Walk in the Park
The issue of “park equity” gained momentum in 2013, after State Senator Daniel L. Squadron introduced legislation that would force New York City’s thriving private parks conservancies to send 20 percent of their operating budgets to a fund for needier parks.
The era of privately funded park conservancies began after the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, which left many New York City parks in a state of deep disrepair.
When the city emerged from the worst of it in the early 80s, so also emerged privately funded parks conservancies, like the Central Park Conservancy, established to advocate and raise funds for individual New York City parks.
As the 1980s gentrification boom took hold, wealthy New Yorkers enjoyed being able to contribute directly to the park of their choosing, often located in their own neighborhoods and backyards.
While this is of tremendous benefit to the parks with wealthy patrons, what of the hundreds of other parks located in less-well-to-do neighborhoods?
City spending on parks maintenance is allocated by borough, but the majority of parks projects and improvements are funded through capital allocations from Council Members and Borough Presidents, rather than with Mayoral funding. This means that these projects are at the mercy of local city council members who control discretionary budgets—and who don’t always share park-based priorities. (New Yorkers for Parks has a great primer on this issue here.)
It’s not surprising that the leaders of these well-funded conservancies consider Squadron’s method to “level the playing field” a terrible idea—but so do many other parks advocates as well. Instead, they are encouraging a deeper discussion of how conservancies might help their poorer neighbors without siphoning off their own funding.
Holly Leicht, former executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, summed up her thoughts in an editorial last year: “Redirecting a percentage of their operating budgets toward a citywide fund would result in debilitating cuts to these parks’ maintenance staffs and programming. What’s more, the sum total of funds from such a tithe would not actually generate enough money to make meaningful improvements in other parks.”
De Blasio endorsed the bill during his campaign, but stopped short of reiterating his support during Silver’s appointment, instead referring to the idea as “creative.”
Silver declined to give a definitive answer on the proposal, stating instead that “the first step you want to find out is that you have legal authority to actually make a proposal like that happen. I’m going to start with a conversation, bring the conservancies to the table.”
Silver Up to the Task
While Silver has much on his plate, it appears that he has the chops needed to do the job. During his last stint in New York in the 1980s, he played a central role in formulating the ‘Harlem-on-the-River‘ plan, where he helped redesign a site originally pegged for a hotel development and turn it into a $20 million park.
“He is perfectly suited to look at the bigger picture and address park issues,” said Adrian Benepe, a senior official at the Trust for Public Land and a parks commissioner under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
Silver said when appointed, “This city’s parks, athletic fields and beaches all provide a unique, public space for education, physical exercise and recreation — and I look forward to expanding these opportunities to even more of New York’s residents. From Van Cortlandt Park to Coney Island Beach, every green space in this city deserves constant care and innovation—and I’m honored to lead the department as we pursue the Mayor’s vision for equal and expanded quality access to parkland in every neighborhood.”