Parks Without Borders

NYC Parks Commissioner talks policy, parks, and breaking down barriers

DLANDstudio's Susannah Drake interviews NYC Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver on how urban design and policy helps parks shape cities. Shown here: Entrance to Prospect Park from Flatbush Avenue (Courtesy Prospect Park Alliance)

Over the next three months, The Architect’s Newspaper will feature a series interviews with Susannah Drake, founding principal of DLANDstudio, and leading public space advocates about the meaning, design, and development of public space. Up first, New York City Parks and Recreation Commissioner Mitchell Silver will discuss New York’s Parks Without Borders initiative to make parks and open space more accessible.

Borders are a hot topic in our current politically volcanic world. Some are geographic, most are political, and many have to do with resources and strategic control. Robert Frost’s poem titled Good Fences Make Good Neighbors is often misinterpreted as suggesting that defined boundaries between people or societies are positive. In practice, defined borders can lead to violence, social isolation, inefficiency, and habitat loss. 

The classic phrase, “living on the other side of the tracks,” was taken to the extreme in the United States after World War II as new highway systems, elevated transportation structures, slum clearance, and dehumanized public housing towers transformed cities across the United States. Today, cities including Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis are working to break down physical and perceived boundaries to make a healthier living environment for all. In New York City, the efforts of three groups, one public and two nonprofit, demonstrate how smart urban planning and design can make the city healthier, safer, and more democratic by improving underutilized public lands.

Madison Square Park (Courtesy NYC DPR)

Madison Square Park (Courtesy NYC DPR/Flickr)

Mitchell Silver, commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, is the visionary behind the city’s Parks Without Borders program. As a native New Yorker who spent his formative years in the city before traveling the country and the world as a planner and thought leader, his vision as head of the public parks agency has been to expand the availability of park space by breaking down physical barriers, jurisdictional boundaries, and site lines into city parks.

AN: What is the origin of the Parks without Borders program?

MS: The origins came from two sources. Growing up in New York, I was always bothered by the big berm that separated Flatbush Avenue from Prospect Park. The road seemed like a raceway defined with so many fences and barriers. Through professional and personal experience, I encountered different forms of public space around the world and saw far fewer barriers. Public space was seamlessly connected to the city. Of course, fences are needed for sports and steep slopes but in many cases, they are unnecessary.

When I became commissioner of the Parks Department, I remembered something that Frederick Law Olmsted said about parks: “The sidewalk adjacent to the park should be considered the outer park.” What I recognized was that the sidewalks around parks, such as Fort Greene Park and Prospect Park, were under the jurisdiction of the Parks Department but felt separate. The land from the park to the curb should feel like part of the park. The public realm should be seamless. The public doesn’t know or care who owns the land.

The New York City Police Department needed to own the idea of crime prevention through community design. I submitted the idea to the Mayor as part of OneNYC and through a partnership between City Planning, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Environmental Protection, and our agency, and a $50 million pilot was launched. There were two components: $40 million was dedicated to eight showcase projects, determined through the extensive public process that received over 6,000 nominations. In addition, $10 million was dedicated to parks and playgrounds across the city already under development to enhance the park design.  

The key principles are to make a seamless public realm by rethinking the edges, entrances, and adjacent spaces of parks across the city. Open space should be open. Growing dense urban centers need vital public space for all races, genders, and ages across the board.

Flatbush Avenue Prospect Park Alliance

Flatbush Avenue Groundbreaking at Prospect Park (Courtesy Prospect Park Alliance)

What barriers have you met in implementing the project? Resistance encountered?

As with all projects of this nature, we met with all of the community boards via borough board meetings and held public meetings in each of the five boroughs to explain the program and ask the public to nominate a park for the program. We communicated our theory that good uses tend to push out bad uses. In other words, plan for what you want to see and not what you don’t want to see. Feedback was split along demographic lines. Older people perceived fences as safeguards and that reducing the height of fences and opening up parks invited crime and homelessness to take over. But we have had early success. At McDonald Playground in Staten Island where Parks Without Borders money was dedicated to a Community Parks Initiative project, the community was initially concerned about lowering fences. The park feels so open now that people ask if we added more land. And, while the plan for Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn is greatly supported by the community, there has been resistance related to the planned removal of some large, invasive, non-native trees, and the mounds constructed in the 1970s as part of the project.

What is the schedule of implementation?

Over 20 parks are in the pipeline. The showcase projects will be completed by 2020. They include Prospect Park, Seward Park, Jackie Robinson Park, Corona Park, Fort Greene Park, Faber Park, Van Cortlandt Park, and Hugh Grant Circle.

New entrance approved for Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn (Courtesy NYC Parks)

New entrance approved for Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn (Courtesy NYC Parks)

How does the program align with other DPR/Administration initiatives?

NYC Parks is advocating for Equity, Access, Placemaking, and Healthy Living. One of the programs, Walk to a Park, is intended to reduce the time it takes to get to a park. Reducing barriers and moving entrances helps increase access to parks. DPR planners conducted a thorough planning process examining the location and attributes of parks across the city and determined where residents might be underserved. Using GIS, they mapped a five-minute walk from parks, playgrounds, and trails across New York City and then used the analysis to prioritize capital expenditures.

Does the DPR Parks without Borders program impact all communities across NYC regardless of demographics?

Yes, with multigenerational, ADA access. At McDonald Playground, a woman hugged me suggesting that I changed her life because she can now sit with her daughter in a quieter area of the park and watch the kids play ball. She said I extended her life. 

Beyond physical fences and walls, what other kinds of borders have you seen in your time as commissioner?

Rules create barriers. We don’t want to engage in anti-planning which can exclude rather than include people. Including more people in more existing parks is one example. Anti-planning, or planning to prohibit a certain group is not fair. For example, some of our playgrounds have a sign that states: “Adults prohibited unless accompanied by a child.” That means a senior citizen is prohibited from using a public space or must walk to another park that doesn’t have that rule. To address this inequity, NYC Parks in 2017 evaluated all city playgrounds and installed new signs at locations that would allow adults in a park or playground, but only prohibited adults in fenced off areas where children’s play units were located, like swings, slides and climbing structures. This one change allows more adult New Yorkers and visitors to enjoy green space like sitting under a tree or using a comfort station.  

Family seating area at Rockaway Beach in Queens (Courtesy NYC Parks)

Family seating area at Rockaway Beach in Queens (Courtesy NYC Parks)

As a planner what is your perspective on borders that might exist because of climate or geographic lines that are mapped but not always perceived by the public? Rockaways?

In places where public safety is an issue such as around water, clearly there need to be rules and physical barriers to keep people safe. Environmental conditions can also require limited access. For instance, the habitat for piping plovers needs to be protected by limiting beach access. This reduced the walk score but was an important trade-off. In natural areas, controlling beach erosion is important. Sometimes these barriers are jurisdictional, particularly in coastal areas. New York City is doing a better job than in the past.

What is your perspective on urban and transportation design decisions in the direct post-war period, in the ’60s and today in relation to race, demographics, and urban living?

White flight of the ’60s, urban renewal with its characteristic superblocks, and highways dividing neighborhoods were not the highlight of good planning. Cities were perceived as unsafe and as a result, many parks were surrounded with high walls to create defensible space. Now Parks Without Borders is changing this situation by moving from defensible space to open and inclusive space. Prospect Park is a great example. Programming by the Alliance activated the park. They designed for what we want to see rather than what we don’t want to see. There are so many users in our parks that space needs to be very inclusive. Our parks are our outdoor living rooms and reflect those that use them.

While DPR does not have purview over public housing, it would be great to get your perspective on the landscape of housing projects in New York City as well as their overall relationship to the city.

The “tower in the park” model is somewhat right. The park part is not right. Residents assume that the landscape is off limits because it is fenced off. Design organizations are now engaging NYCHA Tenant Associations about opening-up the green space within the NYCHA housing campus. For example, some NYCHA Houses have converted open space to community gardens, so the trend of better using NYCHA green space is moving into the right direction.

Digital access to information creates places where people collect in the city. Beyond these spheres are dead zones that might be considered another form of border. Are there any efforts by DPR to expand digital access?

I’d love to see WiFi in parks. We currently have charging stations at some beaches and WiFi in some parks.

Prospect Park (Courtesy NYC DPR/Flickr)

Lack of funding for maintenance and operations is an ongoing issue for public space. How will Parks Without Borders impact maintenance needs of parks?

Maintenance practice of 21st-century parks warrants reexamination. More funding and more staff are welcome but aren’t the answer. We need to be innovative with resources. The agency is now using a zone approach with analytics to optimize the work of maintenance crews. We are also employing new design approaches and adding horticultural staff. One example is having park cleaning seven days per week. This seems like an addition, but the change is cutting down Monday absences because those crews were not unfairly burdened with the weekend trash. This created a better team ethos. Utilization of staff is as important as getting more staff. Working smarter with specialized teams with more training that can troubleshoot issues system-wide (catch basin team, green infrastructure team) is helping.

Any final words?

With limited resources we are forced to think about what is important and how to be innovative, which I base of the 3 S’s of management: You must have the right organizational structure to achieve your vision and mission. You must have the right systems in place to be successful. You must have strong management and operation standards across the five boroughs to function as one agency.  

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