Master of Parks: the gentrifica­tion matter in New York City


New York City Park Commission­er Mitchell Silver in conversati­on with Stefano Boeri on gentrifica­tion: can a greener and healthier city be affordable for lower-income groups? a dialogue on parks and social disadvanta­ges

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 thirty 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 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 twenty-six years during the mid-twentieth 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.

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.

First and foremost, over the almost six years, we’ve been able to complete over 700 capital projects. That’s probably… 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 forty-seven out of sixty-seven 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.

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 prototype of high-density forestatio­n on a high-rise.

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 of more than 100 different species, it means you have a certain spectrum of advantages, like the capacity to absorb fine dust and air 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 vertical forest. 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.

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?

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. The Milano prototype was quite expensive in terms of constructi­on costs, for the research required. 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 tackle climate change and global warming.

Kingston, New York, 2020

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 their 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.

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.

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.

You mentioned that studies have found that green space in some cases can reduce crime.

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.

What Commission­er Silver has done is an important example. In Milan, we are launching a campaign to plant three million trees in the next ten years, with the same goals.

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.

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 twenty 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.

Mr. Boeri, what is your approach to maintainin­g equity in your practice of forestatio­n?

We are now involved in many worldwide campaigns for urban forestatio­n. We have been involved in China where we are part of a campaign to create orbital forests around the cities. We are working in completely other climate conditions like Northern Africa and the Middle East, where we have proposed a campaign for the multiplica­tion of green surfaces in central urban areas. While in Mexico we designed a new Forest City. 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 including informal settlement­s. It is a mistake to imagine that these improvemen­ts of the environmen­t can reach only a part of the city.

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”.

You mean gentrifica­tion.

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.

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.

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?

We are in constructi­on in the Netherland­s for the first social housing Vertical Forest. That’s something that we are very proud of. We are also exporting this kind of model in different parts of the world — from Europe to China. I think we need to imagine a future where we can realize structures that are high-rise, with wooden structure, green, and totally affordable — those four characteri­stics together. High-rise because we cannot avoid having density in the future of our cities. Green to make buildings more sustainabl­e. While the use of timber is connected to several advantages, from CO2 reduction to the enhacement of wood cycle. 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 as we proposed for the Fiume Verde project, in Milano. That’s a political issue. It’s not only something which comes from the private market. It has to be policy.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

Without the without the private contributi­on it would be impossible to develop and realize such big campaigns. What we are doing in Milano, to implement the three million trees project, 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.

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?

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.

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