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Longtime park and recreation leader discusses racial equity, 21st century park infrastructure and his new endeavor
Mitchell Silver has just wrapped up a successful seven-year tenure as parks commissioner for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation (NYC Parks and Recreation), where he oversaw the management, planning and operations of nearly 30,000 acres of parkland. Surprisingly, he initially was reluctant to take the job. In 2014, this seasoned urban planner first interviewed for the city’s planning commissioner position when newly sworn-in Mayor Bill de Blasio offered him a different role: parks commissioner.
As Silver recalls the conversation with the mayor’s staff, “I said, ‘No, I don’t think that will work.’ And they said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘because parks [are] 80 percent operations and 20 percent planning. I’m a planner.’” His hesitancy gradually subsided when the mayor explained to him, “That’s why we want you. We want to really rethink our parks system for the 21st century.” The mayor’s plan included placing equity front and center. Of course, Silver eventually accepted the job, and the rest is park and recreation history.
In early August 2021, Silver began a new chapter as principal and vice president of urban planning for McAdams, a civil engineering, land planning, landscape architecture and geomatics firm in Raleigh, North Carolina. Silver will speak during the day two keynote session at the 2021 NRPA Annual Conference, being held both virtually and in Nashville, Tennessee, September 21-23.
Parks & Recreation magazine recently spoke with Silver to discuss his time at NYC Parks and Recreation, racial injustice as well as diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and his important new role.
Parks & Recreation: You’re quoted as saying, “You had no idea how powerful parks were.” What were some of the misconceptions you had about the profession early on?
Mitchell Silver: Like everyone, I thought parks were just these green spaces with grass and trees, and I didn’t think anything beyond that. I didn’t understand the power of parks. But I soon began to realize, particularly in New York City, these are our front yards, our backyards, our outdoor living rooms, where people come together to meet one another, to create memories. And so that’s one aspect of it. But then I started to realize not just the physical, but also the mental health benefits of being in a park. And, this was pre-COVID. Study after study will show you what just being in a park for 20 minutes will do to the brain — what it’ll do to your overall mental well-being. And to me, that was very powerful. But then I also realized it’s part of our essential infrastructure. Parks are not just these green spaces, but also for climate change. It cools the city and the neighborhood in terms of air quality from the trees. It absorbs CO2 [carbon dioxide] and improves our water quality. They’re also used for stormwater retention. So, [it’s about] rethinking how our park assets [and] our parks can help protect both people and property.
I started to joke around and call the parks department, “the department of fun, health and happiness,” and I realized that every city had to have a department of fun. And I knew right away, that’s the parks department. We have the power to bring joy to people, to help them get healthier, and to help them have fun.
For me, that was an honorable mission for the parks department to really bring that to the public. And it truly has been the case. But [during the early days of the pandemic] when everything else was closed, parks became our sanctuaries of sanity. These were places people went to feel alive. And to understand physical health, to me, was a mental health benefit that was really powerful. In fact, I’ve said [in this era of COVID] that parks should now be considered a part of our healthcare system…. So that was a complete turnaround that I’ve learned. Yes, I saw the power pre-COVID, but now I see the power even more so, post-COVID.
P&R: What are the three biggest lessons you learned during your tenure with NYC Parks and Recreation?
Silver: To me, the parks are the heart of the city. That is first and foremost. The second one is that…you cannot have a quality city unless you have quality parks…throughout all the neighborhoods. Everyone deserves a quality park. My hope is that it’s within close walking distance. You need to have access to a quality park because these are the social gathering places where people come together to socialize, to get healthy, or to [enjoy the] mental health benefits. The third one [is what] I had mentioned earlier, [which is]…how it really can help in climate change. Every city is trying to do something, and the parks system really represents that opportunity — whether it’s street trees, park trees or the landscape itself. I want to make sure we don’t underestimate the power of this essential infrastructure. Parks aren’t just places people can go to, but also [places that] actually can assist in [combating] climate change. So, those are the three things that I somewhat took for granted, but now it’s just part of my overall thinking and DNA. I now get it. I understand parks and they’re powerful. And to me, those are the biggest lessons I’ve learned now that I’ve been in parks and recreation for over seven years.
P&R: You once said that park and recreation agencies need to “develop a 21st century infrastructure.” Could you please elaborate?
Silver: Parks should not just be these [places] that sit in isolation; they shouldn’t just have one purpose. There are health benefits, climate change benefits and social benefits. Across the board, public spaces and parks are now being looked at very differently in the future. In the 20th century, these were just nice green spaces. Now in the 21st century, as people are coming back to cities, they need to adapt to a 21st century design. Parks [must] have a universal design, as we have an aging population. We need to make sure our park paths are smooth — whether for a wheelchair, cane or [walker].
They have to have lots of seating. In the past, parks were places you just strolled through. You want people to sit there and enjoy themselves — particularly our aging population who love just to sit in a public space and feel alive. For children [and older adults], you want to make sure that parks are designed from 8 to 80. So, whether you’re 8 years or 80 years old, there’s something in there for you. And then…in the age of diversity, equity and inclusion, parks have to be inclusive for all. And when someone’s in that space, I want them to say, “I belong here. I feel welcome here.” Having an inclusive parks system is so important. And then, finally, safety. For women and seniors, we want to make sure we remove any barriers in their sight lines in the park design, so that they feel safe. Those are some of the things that I believe are part of a 21st century parks system. [It’s] a new design approach that really addresses the demographic changes in terms of [DEI], so that everyone feels welcome and safe in our public spaces.
P&R: It’s been more than a year since George Floyd’s murder, which led to a racial reckoning in our nation. Tell us about your experience on that tragic day, especially when you first learned the news.
Silver: Earlier that day, there was another incident in Central Park, the same day as George Floyd’s death. A birder [who is Black], named Christian Cooper, was confronted by a [white] woman [who threatened to have him arrested]. He [took] video and that was going viral. I was dealing with that issue when the news broke about George Floyd. When I saw the video, it really broke me, and it changed me forever. I think all of us felt enough was enough. And for me personally, being a Black man, it was a point in my life when I realized there was something I had to say and do. About two days later, after I had reflected on what happened, I wrote a statement to my staff about how I felt. People requested that it go out to the public audience, [and] we did share that.
I was tired of checking my Black identity at the door because I always felt that if I spoke up, or shared how I felt, there would be consequences. I didn’t care anymore. And as that scab was picked off, I felt the decades and decades of racism that I’ve experienced in my life.
I’m thankful, not for the incident of what happened, but that there was a national and international awakening of all the decades and generations of systemic racism. And the trauma about what happened affected me personally. As a Black man and a leader of an organization, I knew I had to lead by example, and that started off a series of things that I had done since then.
P&R: Did you and your park and recreation staff discuss the events and racial injustice? What did you glean from those conversations?
Silver: Everyone kept saying, “What can we do?” I felt that was the wrong question. The right question was: How do you feel? To me, it was more important to understand how people were feeling. So, we decided to create a safe space for our Black employees. We moved on to other groups later on, but we created what we called “Reflections On,” [which] was just a Zoom platform. You did not have to show your video, and we wanted to give people an opportunity to tell us how they felt about what was going on. Those conversations were powerful.
Out of those conversations, the staff wanted to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. This was June now [and] Juneteenth was around the corner. It wasn’t celebrated much, but I felt it was an opportunity to make a very strong statement about sharing the Black experience in our parks system. Within a matter of weeks, we found this park in Brooklyn — Cadman Plaza Park.
My staff called me and said, “You will not believe it. There are 19 benches as you enter this park.” And so, we decided to plant 19 trees and paint the existing 19 benches in the Pan-African flag colors [of red, black and green]. We called it Juneteenth Grove, and it was opened on Juneteenth 2020.
We went on to rename another 28 spaces [in honor of prominent Black figures] throughout New York City. We went further to look at our policies [and]…to look at our training. Those were ongoing things, but we wanted to show that this was not just a one off where we painted a mural and moved on. My departure has really concerned a lot of staff because they feel that leadership is going to go away, but I made sure we planted deep enough roots in the path forward that it will be sustained in future years.
P&R: What does your next chapter look like?
Silver: I’m going to be a principal of the McAdams leadership team. My goal really is just to be a special advisor on planning, parklands and public spaces. I’m also going to be an ambassador for the firm. I’ll be going to a lot of industry conferences to speak [and] to get a better pulse on some of the emerging issues and trends. Also, I’ll be developing both current and future talent. But more importantly, [the team] wants to make sure I have a very strong lens on diversity, equity and inclusion — both within the company and externally on projects that we work on. That’s just a snapshot, but those are some of the things that I will be doing.
P&R: What advice would you give to future generations of park and recreation professionals?
Silver: The residents in your community, your town and your city are [currently] going through these traumatic and anxious events. And, we have the privilege to help them heal. That’s why I say parks are part of our healthcare system. Future park and recreation professionals need to understand the power of parks and the role you play. To me, that is a unique responsibility. As I said earlier, your agency is also the department of fun. No other city agency has that distinction. And through programming and athletics, you have the opportunity to bring so much joy and happiness to your community. Also, find friends, allies and champions, because very often when tough times come, the park and recreation budget gets cut. And so, you need those champions and advocates who can tell the elected officials — those who do the budget — the value and the importance of parks. I don’t know how to put a price tag on how parks saved so many places during COVID. And the number one thing I’ll leave people with is…when tough times come, you have two options: to be bitter or to be better. Use those experiences to be better because the public is relying on you to bring those incredible green spaces to the population.
Vitisia Paynich is Executive Editor and Director of Print and Online Content at NRPA