Parks in New York City promote public health and well-being. Do they also promote gentrification and inequality? A dialogue with New York City Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver and architect Stefano Boeri
New York City needs green space. To promote the health and well-being of a growing population — and meet the problems of pollution and climate change head on — America’s largest city has invested heavily in expanding and improving its public parks system. But green space can also present problems of social inequality. Many worry that new parks, playgrounds, and community gardens will spur gentrification, making neighborhoods unaffordable for low-income communities of color. And high-profile green spaces can become tourist destinations that feel inaccessible to longtime residents.
Since he took office in 2014, Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver has been balancing these concerns. A New York City native, Silver has been an urban planner for over 30 years. Today, through a series of new initiatives, he is attempting to rehabilitate parks in the city’s socially disadvantaged neighborhoods, expand the tree canopy into underused areas, and make green spaces more welcoming to the communities they serve. For Lampoon, Silver agreed to sit down with architect Stefano Boeri, guest editor of this issue, and discuss the present and future of urban parks and forestry — in New York City and across the globe.
On a drab February afternoon, they met at Silver’s offices in the Arsenal, a turreted brick building on the southeast side of Central Park. Outside the window, the foggy city skyline was visible. Spanning one wall was a pencil-drawn schematic of the park. Rumor has it, Silver told Boeri, that the conference room they sat in had been the office of Robert Moses, New York City’s fabled “master builder” and the parks commission for 26 years during the mid-20th century. Their conversation, condensed and edited here for clarity, imagines new modes for urban forestry that can address climate change and other pressing social demands of the 21st-century city.
Michael Friedrich: I’d like to start with a bit of background on each of your contributions to parks, gardens, and urban forestry. Commissioner Silver, you took office in 2014.
Mitchell Silver: First and foremost, over the almost six years, we’ve been able to complete over 700 capital projects. I believe that’s probably the most for several commissioners going back to Robert Moses. We’re fortunate to have a large capital budget, and we build as many capital projects as possible. That’s everything from playgrounds to park restorations to adding to our urban canopy. Specifically, we’ve addressed this parks equity proposal. We’ve transformed 47 of 67 parks we plan to do. We have this new Parks Without Borders proposal that’s really opening up parks and making them more accessible to the public. We have our Anchor Parks initiative, making old parks new again. And we’ve been focusing on our tree canopy. We completed the million trees campaign two years ahead of schedule. And now we’re planting well over 20,000 trees a year, both our street trees and trees within parks. We’re pushing forward a better approach to making our cities more resilient. From Rockaway to Coney Island to East River Park, we’re planning on having a very different park system in the future to address climate change, but also the sea level rise. Of that 700, there are a lot of great stories, and I can go into greater detail, but those are some things I’m most proud of.
MF: Mr. Boeri, you’re known in part as a champion of urban forestry and expanding the tree canopy in urban environments — and especially for pioneering Milan’s Vertical Forest, which is a method of high-density forestation on a high-rise.
Stefano Boeri: You are precise in defining vertical forestation as a way to densify plants and trees in a very small surface ground. What we have done in Milan is to plant 21,000 plants in 2,000 square meters. It’s such a small urban surface in the center of a city with a polluted environment. That explains the advantages of such an approach. If you introduce, as a “graft,” this kind of super-dense ecosystem, which has 800 trees from six to nine meters, 4,500 shrubs, basically 15,000 plants and more than 100 different species, it means you have a certain spectrum of advantages, like the capacity to absorb the dust of carbon pollution, absorb CO2, and produce oxygen. At the same time, in terms of biodiversity, after six years we have more than 20 different species of birds that are nesting on the skyscraper. The reduction of energy consumption for the cooling in the summertime is another advantage. I don’t believe vertical forestation is the main or the most important of several tools we have to develop urban forestation, but it’s one of them.
MF: We’re ideally situated here, surrounded by skyscrapers, to think about a vertical forest. Is that a realistic vision of forestation for New York City?
SB: If we’re talking about the opportunity to multiply the number of trees in a hyper-dense urban environment like Manhattan, why not? We are seriously working on that, and we are also doing our best to make these buildings affordable for everybody. This prototype in Milan was quite expensive in terms of construction costs, in terms of maintenance costs. But now we are in a condition to do the same with another kind of format entirely. In terms of equity, these kinds of buildings are, nowadays, one of the possible instruments we have to deal with climate change and global warming.
MS: In New York, we’re always open to ideas. Certainly, we want to make sure we execute our horizontal forest, and that is a huge priority for the city. But we’re also a city that believes in market forces, and if there is a private sector developer that wants to initiate a vertical building that has those green elements, and if the economics work, there’s no zoning that prohibits that from happening. Now, we have to look at different climates. You have Singapore, where things grow robustly all year long. New York City’s climate is a bit different. Right now, we’re pushing heavily for green roofs, wherever possible. We understand the value. I’m intrigued by the idea, which is why I’m impressed by Mr. Boeri and the work that he’s doing. I can’t say it’s something that’s a vision for New York, but as we become more dense and climate change becomes more real, it’s something that’s going to be discussed.
MF: You’ve talked about a range of benefits that public parks and tree canopy confer on an urban environment. In particular, you’ve mentioned reducing particle pollution, increasing habitat, and producing microclimates.
MS: I’ll add they benefit physical and mental well-being. We’re finding, in study after study, just being in green space reduces stress, reduces anxiety, in some cases even reduces crime. In my opinion, we cannot have a livable city without a quality parks and public space system. You just can’t have it. That is why we’re pushing green space out into the public ground—streets, plazas, sidewalks—because everyone benefits by having shade, cooling buildings, air quality, water quality, absorbing carbon dioxide, and pushing more oxygen out there, having the biodiversity of all the species that enjoy our plant life. As you look at the research, the way to address climate change is to plant more trees and improve green space. If I can create more green space in New York City, and I have that mandate, I will do it — horizontal, vertical, and all ways.
MF: You mentioned that studies have found that green space in some cases can reduce crime.
MS: Improving neglected parks and public space shows the community that local government cares. When you respect the community with quality design, the community respects you back. Based on our inspection records, we are not experiencing vandalism in the newly transformed parks and playgrounds. Parks account for one percent of all crimes in New York City. Activating parks with programs tends to attract more users, which has also been shown to reduce crime. Good uses tend to displace bad uses. Meanwhile, Parks Without Borders follows the Crime Prevention through Environment Design strategies. Removing or lowering fences and clearing visual obstructions make parks safer. Sight lines are improved, which gives the public a sense of security and reduces the locations where people can hide or commit crime. We are also working with more community groups to partner as stewards of the park. This allows more caring neighbors to reclaim public space as well as become the eyes and ears of parks and playgrounds.
SB: What Commissioner Silver has done is an important example. In Milan, we are launching a campaign to plant three million trees in the next 10 years, with the same goals.
MF: I want to turn to some of the social effects, since you brought that up. There can be a lot of disparity in New York and other U.S. cities. Parks in high-income neighborhoods often receive disproportionate funding and attention while parks in disadvantaged neighborhoods go neglected.
MS: You have to recognize that it’s been a problem in the past. We had the luxury of using a data-driven approach. We did this analysis to take a look 20 years back to find out whether we have invested equitably throughout our city. Every city has a capital improvement plan. You’re taking these large dollar amounts, and then you come up with a plan. We looked at that to find out: Were we distributing those dollars equitably? And the answer was no. What do you do next? In our case, the answer was that there were at least 200 parks that were not being invested in. If you want to achieve parks equity, you have to take a hard look at where your dollars are going. But beyond that, it’s also maintenance. You want to make sure that you have staff that’s actually caring for parks in an equitable manner. When I got here, we identified our hot spots — sporting events, picnic areas — and decided to change our entire weekly schedule to send staff out to parks, so they could be cleaned and maintained seven days a week as opposed to five days a week. A lot of this is taking a fresh look.
MF: Mr. Boeri, what is your approach to maintaining equity in your practice of forestation?
SB: We are now involved in many campaigns for urban forestation in Milan. We have been involved in China in cities like Liuzhou, like Nanjing, where we are part of this campaign to create the orbital forest all around the city. We are working in completely other climate conditions like Cairo, Egypt, where we have proposed a campaign for the multiplication of the environment in the central city, in other parts of Europe, and in Cancun, Mexico. Every time we start, we are considering the necessity of support for equity. The effect of heating in the urban environment is one of the most evident results of global warming. That the tree canopy can directly reduce heating is part of the purpose in urban environments. It is a mistake to imagine that these improvements of the environment can reach only a part of the city.
MF: There are certain models of 21st century parks, and I’m thinking of some of the ones that are built on disused infrastructure — those like Domino Park, the High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park — that can be socially useful to some communities but appear to be alienating to others. I’m thinking particularly of research out of the City University of New York that showed the High Line’s users are “overwhelmingly white.”
SB: You mean gentrification.
MF: Yes, but even before we talk about gentrification, I mean in terms of how a park is used and who’s using it. I’m curious what kind of programming, activities, and design are necessary to make sure parks are useful and inviting to everyone.
MS: Let’s take the High Line. The High Line is a linear park. It’s not one to go to for sporting events, or for picnicking — although you can eat there. It is basically a traveling 3-D garden that you can experience on an elevated walkway. By that virtue, that park is going to attract certain users. So, from our perspective, programming is important. I applaud the High Line, and others, for example, like Brooklyn Bridge Park, because there the basketball courts are very controversial, but they want to make sure the piers provide a variety of experiences for all users. The High Line now has a lot of cultural programming, from art to food to music to dance. They work well with the community to find out the programming elements that will appeal to everyone who lives nearby. I think they took a lot of heat initially for how that park was designed. I have to say, I serve on that board, and they do a great job with the programming. The “Brick House,” from Simone Leigh, is one of my favorite sculptures in New York City, designed by an African American artist. It’s getting acclaim everywhere and is a destination for people to photograph, have events near it. That’s their way of really changing their focus in the future by providing those offerings that appeal to a wider audience. And the High Line is just one example. You’re seeing that from park to park.
MF: Mr. Boeri, you brought up the specter of gentrification. Some of these high-profile green projects end up attracting a lot of real estate money and driving up property values nearby, displacing longtime residents. For example, a report from the New York Economic Development Corporation has shown that the High Line has done that in Chelsea and the Meatpacking District. I read, as well, that the Vertical Forest has presented challenges to affordability for tenants because of maintenance and structural issues. How do you keep housing affordable while expanding green space?
SB: We are in construction in Holland for a social housing Vertical Forest. That’s something that we are very proud of. We are also replicating this kind of model in different parts of the world — in China, for instance. I think it’s possible to raise these kinds of green buildings while making them totally affordable for everyone. That’s one part of the answer. The other part of the answer goes back to what we were saying about the necessity to have a public vision and public direction on this kind of process. I think it is necessary to fix a certain percentage of such development as social housing, as has been done around the High Line in New York or the central public park in Milan, where we have built the Vertical Forest. That’s a political issue. It’s not only something which comes from the private market. It has to be policy.
MS: From our perspective, the High Line is an exception rather than the rule. We have 2,000 parks in New York City, and most that we improve do not lead to gentrification. But that fear is there. I have found that there are some examples where improving a green space — like the downtown waterfront — can lead to redevelopment and gentrification, but with most parks that is not the case. This comes up when I’ve gone to community meetings. We’re saying, Okay, we have two choices. If we do something, it’s called gentrification. If we do nothing, we’re told we’re neglecting the space. I’m looking at a space that has not been invested in well over a quarter of a century. We’d rather improve it and not deny another generation of children and families and seniors a quality space. There are other issues the city is dealing with to provide more affordable housing and tenants’ rights. We try to separate that and not hold public spaces hostage when improving them for the community. This comes up often and so we now have the numbers to say: please show us where improving this two-acre neighborhood park has led to gentrification. It’s more myth than reality.
MF: One example: In Hunters Point, Queens, I know there’s been concern about the waterfront park and I remember as it was being developed, there were community groups that were actively trying to resist it. It was also around then that I started to hear about the “just green enough” movement — the idea is that you build green but not too green or too high-designed in a way that would attract fancy real estate.
MS: I still believe you want to have the maximum amount of open space possible. We’re a city of 8.6 million people. We have 30,000 acres of parkland. Having that absolutely beautiful public gem and giving the best land to the public creates value, but also livability for those that live there. The beauty of the Hunters Point South plan was that a lot of affordable housing was built into the project. You have this nice mix of market rate and affordable housing, and both have access to this world-class public park facing the East River and the view of the East Side of Manhattan. I think all people deserve that view. I don’t really support “just green enough.” I want to maximize green space and preserve that for both present and future generations.
MF: Building new public parks and maintaining the existing ones can require not just public tax money but also private investment. Often that comes in the form of public-private partnerships in New York. Meanwhile, Mr. Boeri, the projects you’re building require private real estate development. What are the benefits and drawbacks of relying on private funding for these ecologically and socially useful projects?
MS: There are many experiments all over the world to find the right balance between the necessity of the public to remain the owner of public parks and the necessity of involving private funds to contribute to their maintenance. Today, public-private partnerships are a great option to build a park. I don’t think there’s any downside. With Brooklyn Bridge Park, for example, it was a master plan. It was all city-owned land. In order to make the deal work, a portion of it was set aside for development. Another portion was set aside for the park. The lease or sale of development was used long-term to both build and maintain the park. That model worked.
One of the untapped resources I see is that 40 percent of New York City is in the public realm. There’s 14 percent parks, 26 percent streets and sidewalks, and we keep losing sight of this 26 percent of the public realm we own. Streets and sidewalks to me are a great opportunity to provide more greening, more shade for the public. I certainly support public public-private partnerships — Domino Park is an example, Hudson River Park, Governor’s Island — but there are also other ways to build great parks.
MF: You said there’s no downside to involving private funds to contribute to park building and maintenance. But some commentators have noted that private donors and developers tend to invest money in urban parks in areas that are already thriving, contributing to unequal distribution of resources for green space — more for Bryant Park and the High Line, say, and less for Van Cortlandt Park and McDonald Park.
MS: I was referring to public-private partnerships in the creation of new parks like Brooklyn Bridge, High Line, Domino, et cetera. There is no downside because these parks are open to all and through programming support our equity and diversity values. In addition, we welcome improvements to all of our parks from private and public funds. Our goal is to create an equitable parks system. Funding for maintenance and operations is equitably resourced. The New York City Parks budget has increased from $320 to $580 million from fiscal year 2014 to 2020 to improve the parks system and ensure all New Yorkers have access to safe and clean parks. We also completed over 700 capital projects in six years to improve the overall parks system. Moreover, $318 million was the Community Parks Initiative and $150 million of Anchor Parks.
SB: I think without the private contribution it would be impossible to develop and realize such big campaigns. What we are doing in Milan is to gather private funds and try different formats, sometimes as a sponsor, other times it’s simply receiving money to invest in green environments. But the other part of this partnership is that we need public direction. We need the municipality to run the entire process of forestation. We need the vision. Without a vision, all this fragmented contribution will remain isolated.
MF: What’s the ideal way to make parks happen? What are the success stories that are energizing you and pointing to the future of park planning?
SB: I think we need to imagine the future where we can realize structures that are high-rise, timber and wood, green, and total affordable — those four characteristics together. High-rise because we cannot avoid having density in the future of our cities. The use of timber and wood is something that will become more important in the future in order to cut CO2. Green to make buildings more sustainable. And affordable. We have to invest all our energy into this kind of project. It doesn’t matter if it’s in South America or in North China. We know how to build these typologies in relation to specific climate conditions. We are now designing a new district in Albania after the earthquake in Tirana, with 15 new high-rises in wood for a Vertical Forest in social housing. That’s just to give you one example. But we are also in construction in France and Holland with social housing Vertical Forests. If we use prefabrication the right way, we know how to cut the cost of maintenance.
MS: What I see as exciting is in categories I’m going to call “underperforming asphalt” and “concrete.” One example is Discovery Green — two dead parking lots in downtown Houston that they requisitioned and asphalted and made into one of the most amazing public spaces that has transformed the district around it. Also in Houston is the Bayou. I love the fact of taking infrastructure and having parks and public space serve two purposes. We want to make sure that resiliency projects also provide a public benefit. The underperforming asphalt one I’m intrigued about here in New York City is right by Madison Square. Janette Sadik-Kahn saw this underperforming asphalt and just had lines painted, put out some benches and flower pots, and now it has become an incredible public space right next to Eataly. The great thing about it is we own it. We don’t have to acquire it. To me, across the world, this is one of the greatest opportunities — land that is already publicly owned. We’ve given far too much to cars, and not enough to people. We just have to think differently, be innovative, and reprogram it to make it more green. That’s leading to the transformation here in New York City and other places around the world.