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Episode 119 guest Mitchell Silver

Not only has Mitchell Silver prioritized equitable access to the 14% of NYC land that encompasses its parks, playgrounds, and recreational facilities in his role as commissioner of NYC Parks and Recreation, but he’s endeavored to make the spaces a place for joy and healing.


Cohen: Josh Cohen
Jensen: L’erin Jensen
Silver: Mitchell Silver

Cohen: When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio brought Mitchell Silver in as commissioner of parks and recreation in May 2014, he said, quote, “He has a passion for fairness and equality, and he brings it to the work of government and understands that we have to ensure that parks and open spaces are available in every community and are well-maintained in every community in this city,” end quote. Today on The Movement podcast, you’ll hear directly from Commissioner Silver on how he made changes to ensure everyone had access to the bounty of New York City’s outdoor living rooms. Let’s go.

F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all. Welcome to The Movement where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here are your hosts Josh Cohen and L’erin Jensen.

Cohen: Our guest today is a giant in the industry, Mitchell Silver, Commissioner of New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Prior to returning to his native New York City as parks commissioner, Commissioner Silver served as the chief planning and development officer and planning director here in North Carolina in our capital city of Raleigh, among other stops in his illustrious career. Welcome to The Movement, Commissioner Silver.

Silver: Thank you; pleasure to be here.

Jensen: We’re excited to have you. So we’ll just jump right in. In June, after a seven-year stint as the commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation you’re coming back to Raleigh where you spent nine years as Raleigh’s chief planning officer. Now, besides the obvious size and population differences, what’s different about working in a city like New York City and a city like Raleigh? How do you plan effectively in these two very different cities?

Silver: Well, L’erin, you’re absolutely right. In terms of size, they are very different cities. In Raleigh I was planning director at the time I was also the chief planning officer, so I oversaw about seven different offices. Here in New York City it’s just parks. But I brought that planning experience to New York City in parks, and that’s how we were able to really re-envision 21st century parks. But the first is the form of government; to me that is the one that is most different.

New York City is a strong mayor-form of government Raleigh is a city-council-form of government with the city manager being the chief officer. So how we get things done is very different. In New York the mayor has a vision; he wants his commissioners to execute it. In Raleigh it’s more of a collaborative role when you work with council to develop a vision. So to me that’s first and foremost what’s different. And anyone going into planning school must understand the context and the form of the government that you’re working in, if you’re in the public sector. So that’s number one.

Number two it’s the path to implementation. New York, because we actually collect personal income tax as well as other taxes, there’s not a lot of dialogue when the mayor wants to initiate—or the city council—huge capital projects. You translate that to Raleigh, because the taxpayers are very concerned about their taxes, you have to put up bonds and referendums for people to vote, a school bond, a road bond, or a parks bond, and then the voters get to vote. And so to see those cap improvements implemented you have to make your case to the taxpayers so they’ll approve it. The good news is it generally passes, but that’s some extra work that you have to do.

The other point is—and I know over the years I’ve gotten criticism for this, but it is true. There are plan-making cities, and then there are deal-making cities. Now, I’m not saying one is bad or the other is bad, but you have to know your environment. New York City is a very dense city, unlike Raleigh where you have a lot of greenfield development, a lot of low-density development, so as you do projects you have to look very carefully at how you develop. In New York, you’re looking at sites to redevelop because there’s not a lot of vacant space, so you’re being very surgical about how you do projects. So very often you’re going to tear down a building or assemble a site that may be a parking lot. In Raleigh, there’s a lot of greenfield development or low-density development, so the context, the fabric of the city is different.

And then last one is that Raleigh was very governed by a comprehensive plan. There was a plan to vision for the future, and you methodically follow that plan so that you achieve the city you want to grow. It’s still a growing city. New York, we never had a comprehensive plan. It’s a strategic plan that governs how they’re going to operate, and so the context is very different. And so for me I had to learn how to navigate that process. In Raleigh I was an innovator and a visionary; in New York, because it’s a very different environment, I had to be an innovative navigator because there were so many rules and bureaucracy.

So if I had to sum up my approach I’d have to say that in Raleigh being a visionary, thinking about how to manage, plan, and grow for the future, but here in New York in planning it’s really being a lot more strategic about how do we maximize and provide those benefits to New Yorkers. So that’s what I’ve learned over the past seven years being here in New York, but I’m very excited about coming back to Raleigh and starting to exercise those planning muscles once again.

Cohen: That’s fabulous. I want to dig in a little bit to one of those things you said about the different role as far as the cities and how they’re structured. And the point you brought up about, say, in Raleigh or cities like Raleigh perhaps, you have to go to the public and make your case. And I guess my question is for the bonds, for the parks, you know, so forth, for the schools, does that process make better projects because you have to go through a very methodical kind of strategy to say, like, “Here’s how we need to sell this to the general public,” which are not insiders like you? They don’t have the planning background. You’ve got to, like, drill this down into a way that they can understand. Does that make for a better project?

Silver: I think it makes for a better-educated public. I’ll give an example. When I was in Raleigh, people were very comfortable with the low-density, sprawl development that we had. And when they hired me back in 2005 they were very concerned about having a different kind of city going forward. People were coming to North Carolina; they were coming to Raleigh; and they knew that we could not thrive on just single-family homes. And so I had to have a conversation about the implications of having that sprawled development pattern, and so in that process I had an opportunity to educate the public. People were saying, “No, no, no,” to density, “No, no, no,” to development. And I had to share with them, “When you say no to something, you’re saying yes to something else.”

So when I was in Raleigh there was a pushback against multi-family and rentals. I’m saying, “If you’re saying no to multi-family and rentals, what you’re saying is, ‘Yes, seniors and young people, we don’t want you to live in our community,’ because they cannot afford single-family homes.” We at the time were looking at how many people were coming to Raleigh, and we estimated. It was about, you know, over a 20-year period. And we did not have the land to accommodate that growth. And so we had to say, “If we don’t accommodate that growth, we’re going to have more congestion because people are living farther out.” So it gives you an opportunity to have a candid conversation with the public.

We estimated, when I was there, about 34 years we’d run out of water; in about 20 years, we’d run out of land. And so it’s not just saying no; “If you say no, here are the implications,” because tens of thousands of people were coming to Wake County and the Triangle every year. And saying no was not solving the problem; actually it was exacerbating the problem. So while I was there we had a conversation. “How many people are we going to grow each year? How are we going to densify to make sure we have these urbanized nodes but keep the single-family zoning that people really liked? But also we have to think about transit. And what about cars?”

And so having that conversation, in my opinion, really helped. We came up with a comprehensive plan; 2009 that was approved. Ninety-four percent of the public supported that plan, and I believe that was because of the outreach and our explanation of why we had to come up with a plan to make sure we managed growth and change going into the future.

Cohen: Hmm. I love that tradeoff way to frame that. I think that’s so great. It just—it lets people choose. It gives people that agency to say, “Look; you got to pick one or the other.” Right? I mean, we can’t have both.

Silver: Yeah. And I remember we brought in ULI to do this exercise. And we put a pile of LEGOs to say, “Here is the growth we’re expecting over 20 years. Here’s the commercial development we’re expecting over 20 years. You’ve got to use all the LEGOs. And here’s the map of the Triangle. You’ve got to put it down somewhere because you can’t just say no. This is what we’re expecting, and we have to figure out how we’re going to manage that growth that’s coming.” And I’m pleased to say there were 20 tables; my table actually was the one that was chosen the best. I think it was mixed-use centers. And it really gave people an understanding that no is not the option. They’re coming. This is an incredible region, a growing market that people want to live. And just by saying, you know, “Roll up the gates,” and saying no more growth is not a responsible thing to do. So I’m so grateful we did those exercises. And we also worked well as a region. It wasn’t just Raleigh. We understood the Triangle. You know, you rise as a region, you fall as a region. And what I love about the Triangle is they all understood how we had to all play well together if we wanted to succeed.

Jensen: I love this because essentially what you’re saying is, “Ignoring a problem won’t solve it.” You sweet it under the rug and it’s going to rot your floors. But I think that’s a good segue into my next question. So equity is quite the buzzword in mobility planning these days and rightfully so because everyone deserves mobility. And similarly in order to achieve NYC Parks’ vision to create and sustain thriving parks and public spaces for New Yorkers you have to ensure equitable access for all New Yorkers. So can you tell us a little bit about how you did that?

Silver: Sure. Let me first start by saying I’ve been in the equity, diversity, and inclusion space almost my entire career, so while it’s very popular right now—it’s the right thing to do—I’m concerned that now it’s going to be mainstream a bit, but I’ll explain to you what I believe equity, diversity, and inclusion is. But we were able to achieve that because I believe equity, diversity, and inclusion isn’t something you do; it’s who you are. If it does not come from that set of values, your core values of who you are, then it just becomes a campaign and it becomes a checklist. You know, if you believe it’s a campaign, you’ll hire a diversity officer and then say, “Job done.” Or you’ll have on your mission statement, “We believe in equity, diversity, inclusion,” and you believe the job is done. To me, it is something you are, not just something you do, and I’ll give you an example.

Diversity means the value of different perspectives. This is my shorthand version; diversity, the value of different perspectives; equity means fairness; inclusion means to be welcoming to all; and then access is to remove barriers both physical, regulatory. And so if I had to frame it I’ve always operated under those values. When I came to New York the mayor was very concerned that we had basically a tale of two cities, not every park in New York City receiving the same level of investment; and the mayor wanted me to come up with an equitable framework about how are we going to address how some parks within New York City received investments and others did not.

Within six months we came up with this equitable framework to create more parks, equitable parks in New York City, but we did something different. We didn’t reach out to elected officials; we didn’t reach out to the public; we decided to take a data driven approach to see how equitable we’ve been. We used a 20-year timeframe, and we found out over several mayors New York City invested over $6 billion to improve our parks. But we wanted to find out of that six billion how many parks were left out. And after doing that analysis it turned out—we have about 2,000 parks in New York City—10%, 215 parks were left out, little to no investment.

Cohen: Wow.

Silver: These were neighborhoods hiding in plain sight that for whatever reason, while they saw other parks in New York City getting revitalized and transformed, theirs was frozen in time. Imagine, from kindergarten to college they saw no investment. We said, “That’s not fair.” And that’s where the term “equity” comes in. So the mayor, to his credit, of the 215 he set aside over 318 million to totally transform 67 of the 215 parks. And we took advantage of not just doing a replacement in kind, which is just replacing what’s there, we really used 21st century practices knowing we have climate change, so we scraped it down to the dirt. Now, there’s rain gardens, there’s more trees, there’s benches, there’s lowering fences.

We wanted to give these spaces dignity because these communities had been neglected for so long. We lowered the fences because in New York we have fences and gates around our parks that were seven feet tall with spikes. We now lowered them down to four feet; we’re now opening up the entrances to make them more visible. We’re putting state-of-the-art play equipment because in New York City your parks are not just your front yard, your back yard; they’re your outdoor living rooms. This is where people go to connect. Whether you’re eight or 80, that’s where people go. And so now they look like these beautiful, green, outdoor living rooms. And in COVID we’ve learned that these parks have become sanctuaries of sanity, and we have to make sure that there are these spaces not just for physical health but for mental health.

So we’ve now finished well over 55 of the 67, and the results—we just opened up another one yesterday, Almeda Playground in the Rockaways. To me it’s more like a park than a playground. We took a handball wall and put beautiful tiles on it. It looks stunning, and the community feels so more dignified and respected. There are these vandal-proof type parks, but now they have quality spaces and people are just in love with it. So that’s having an equity lens, not just saying what you’re going to do but actually being that and doing it.

We take it further, our hiring practices. We take it further about our maintenance practices. So, to me, beings fair is a value we apply across the board, and that is something that we are trying to do. So I look at EDI, equity, diversity, inclusion as a full package, but I just want to make sure as people are listening it is just not a campaign, something that you do; it’s who you are.

Jensen: To that point, I think I read something just this morning that—it said that if you’re equity is just getting more people of color in the room and allowing them to be heard, then you’re really not being equitable or, like, antiracist. The goal is to make White people, like, also understand their Whiteness, that we can’t just all be at the table just to be there, but, like, people have to recognize their privileges and what that means, be fully aware of all of those things.

Silver: There is no question, we’re going through an awakening. And all the disruptions we’ve felt, political, economic, health crisis, Black Lives Matter, there is an awakening going on right now. So I’m gratified we’re now having conversations we couldn’t have before, conversations about privilege, about antiracism. So, to me, I’m very gratified, but you make a very good point, L’erin. Just representing and reflecting is not enough. As a Black commissioner, I’m in a position of power, and I’m not just going to represent and reflect; I want to have the power to make change.

Some of the things we’re able to do as a result of Black Lives Matter I was very much affected and still affected by it after being a person of color my entire life. You know, I got tired of hanging my identity at the door when I came into the office. So after the whole incidence of George Floyd—and, by the way, the same day a man, a birder named Christian Cooper was confronted in Central Park. They happened the very same day as George Floyd’s murder. And it was a very traumatic day for me, and it started to—really it’s like a scab was picked off, and it was painful and personal, and it exposed the trauma I dealt with my entire life of being a Black man and one in leadership.

We pivoted very quickly to have conversations with our staff, our Black staff in particular, because people kept saying, our White allies, “What can we do? What can we do?” And I said, “Wrong question. The first question is, ‘How do you feel?’ How do you feel? Until you understand how I feel, don’t jump to ‘What can I do?’ because you’re skipping over the stress, the anxiety, the generational trauma that I’ve experienced that now all Americans are talking about.” So we did that with our staff. We had these reflection calls, asked them, “How do you feel?” And those conversations were powerful. I now decided to look at a lot of our spaces in New York City, and we went on this campaign to rename them, to make sure the diversity was reflected in our parks system.

The first one we did was Juneteenth Grove because right after George Floyd it was around Memorial weekend.

We came up with this design for a park in Brooklyn. We planted 19 trees, and we painted 19 benches the Pan-African colors and called it Juneteenth Grove. And it was our way for people to go there to reflect, to celebrate, to protest, to let them know, “You matter in this city.” And now we’re renaming other spaces for prominent Black New Yorkers and Americans, James Baldwin Lawn, Langston Hughes Playground, Ella Fitzgerald. And we’re going to continue to do that to let them know that you matter in this environment. And, as a person of color, I had the power to do that. So your point is, yes, people are looking for you to represent and reflect, but we have to go beyond that. We have to have the power to make change. And that’s why I’m gratified, while I’m in this role, that I’m able to do that.

Cohen: Mmm. Thank you so much for sharing that. And I did not realize that that was the same day as that Christian Cooper story. That was such a scary kind of situation there. And, I guess, what that made me think about was just how much our public spaces when we think about over the course of the last year as there have been racial justice protests and so forth, how we’ve used our public spaces for that. Right? That kind of goes back to what you were saying before, that our parks are our living room—right—especially in a city as dense as New York City, that in some ways if people are going to commune it has to be in a park. Right? I mean, you know, certainly there are some streets where that can be done, but in some ways it has to be in a park or other public space. And, I think, that just reinforces to me how important it is that you have that perspective that you just shared, which is that diversity, equity, inclusion is not just something you’re doing, but it’s integral to who you are.

Silver: Correct. And I know this may surprise a lot of people but I started protesting—since I’m a runner, we have a group called Running to Protest, and they’re still active. They didn’t want this to be a one-and-done. We’re having another one every two weeks, so there’s another one on this Sunday. And I was made honorary co-captain of the Running to Protest. And everybody was pretty much shocked because a lot of our protests are in parks, but I too wanted to show solidarity that I want to see things changed, not just for friends, but I’m a grandfather, I’m a father of both grandchildren and children of color, and I want to see things change. But we do this in our public spaces.

We do allow people to protest, both in our streets and our parks. They have their First Amendment right to do that. And you’re right; these are the gathering places where people come together. And what better than in this beautiful, green canopy of trees where you can just connect, protest, but also be in this great, green environment where people can really talk about how they feel. So I’m very, very gratified with that honor.

Jensen: Well, I’m not surprised that you were named co-captain. [LAUGHS] It’s been a trend in your career. As a matter of fact, you’ve held numerous prestigious roles including the past president of the American Planning Association where you were the first African American to hold the title and the current president of American Institute of Certified Planners. So I guess I want to know, like, what advice would you share with those just staring their career in how to best achieve a life of impact?

Silver: For one, I would tell them that you have to have a sense of purpose and really understand what that is. I was very gratified and very fortunate that when I was in grad school my sense of purpose clicked in and I understood planning was not just about place but it was about people. Communities have a spirit; they have a soul, and I wanted to tap into it because every block, every park, every neighborhood has a story. And I want to tap into that story.

Chicago is not New York. New York is not New Orleans. New Orleans is not Raleigh. And within them each neighborhood has their own set of stories, and that’s something that I wanted to tap into and to understand as I plan I have to remember the authentic stories, memories of that place because, to me, it’s sacred. You know, now people want to go back to the indigenous population and understand the story. You know, some people call it dirt, you know, if you’re a developer; but to me this is land with stories and histories and blood, sweat, and tears that formed it. And so for me it’s very important for planners to understand their sense of purpose but understand the history of place so you don’t just gloss over it with this new, shiny development, but make sure there’s a connection to the past.

The other one is the American Institute of Certified Planners, our code of ethics. Oh, my goodness. When I read that when I was a young planner, I was moved by the principles that we aspired to, like for example that we have to deal with uncertainty about the future, that we have to fight for social justice, that we have to have a special concern for the long-term consequences of present actions. There’s even a principle that says we shall urge the alteration of policies, institutions, and decisions that oppose social justice. I was like, “Am I reading this right?” So that really gave me the courage to speak out, whether I was in New York or Raleigh. So that, to me, is something that emerging planners need to understand. Also that, I believe, that as planners we’re guardians of present and future generations. You know, our job is to look at those emerging trends and say, “Public, we got your back, even if you’re not born yet. We see these emerging trends coming, and we need to deal with it.”

Back when I was president of the American Planning Association in late 2008, 2009, I started talking about the changing demographics, the graying of America. And I remember there was some conference I went to down south where people just walked out the room and yelled at me that you’re a liar. And now we’re seeing the impacts of the changing demographics were now our democracy is being threatened because one group is fearful that they do not want to be a minority, and what does that mean? So we have to understand the emerging trends, and just like a stockbroker we have to watch these trends like stockbrokers watch the market so we can determine how we can talk about it, address it, and deal with it. And so my other advice is that, you know, young planners need to watch these emerging trends. You can’t Google to find the results. It’s going to take creative thinking, innovation, and leadership to have conversations with the public.

I also believe we should serve the public interest and not the self-interest, to understand collectively how a community can benefit and not in the self-interest of one individual or one company. I can go on and on and on. I love to talk to young people because I do believe they need to understand up front their sense of purpose. Let me tell you a very quick story, because there was a friend of mine, a professor who asked her planning students day one to write an essay about why they wanted to be a planner. She saved the essay, and 10 years later there was a little reunion, and she pulled out these essays and shared it with the students. Some of them came to tears because after 10 years being in a profession sucked the life out of them, but when they read that essay they were like, “Oh, my goodness; I remember why I pursued this in the first place.” And it was this beautiful connection of why they pursued it, and it made them fall in love again with what their original purpose was. So for some of them it was like a reckoning and a homecoming, and a lot of them just were reminded about why they pursued this career in the first place. And so, to me, that’s very important; never, ever forget your sense of purpose. There are both present and future generations relying on you to stay true to your purpose.

Cohen: Wow. I love that. And I want to underline something you said there when you talked about the ethics of the American Institute of Certified Planners, because why I think that’s so important is that it’s lonely to be a leader. It’s lonely to put yourself out there and feel like you might be stepping out of bounds. And what the AICP has done there is they’ve given everyone permission to do the right thing. And that’s why I think it’s so, so important. I really just want to underline that. Because, again, when you have that whole organization behind you as an organization and the whole industry behind you, then when you get put in those situations where you have to make that hard call and maybe your boss wants you to do something different or maybe some politician or some general public or somebody wants you to do something different that maybe is not in line with those principles you have something to turn to. I think that’s so important.

Silver: Right. There are probably two or three times in my career where I was willing to quit, just walk away from the job and resign because it violated the code of ethics. Luckily it went in another direction where I did not have to do that, but you’re absolutely right. I encourage every young person, you can get them online, it’s free. Even if you’re not a professional planner, just read it, and you’ll probably have the same reaction. It’s the AICP code of ethics. You can Google it, get it online. I read it at least twice a year, so I make sure it stays within me. And there are many times—you’re absolutely right, Josh—that I was in a very difficult position, but I decided that this is what I have to do. And the other one I didn’t read was, “We shall always be conscientious of the rights of others,” and rights is a very broad term. And so I’ve now embodied this in my profession, in my life the entire time I’ve been a planner, and it has saved me many, many times.

Jensen: You know, those code of ethics stuck out to me as well, as you were reading them. And I thought to myself, because, you know, we just got done talking about equity, like, “Is this part of this equity being this new buzzword, or has this always been in the code of ethics for the AICP?”

Silver: Social justice has been. So, you know, we’re actually doing a rewrite of our code, and we’re updating it to look at equity, diversity, and inclusion. So that will be completed sometime this year. It’s now going through the various components for review. But, L’erin, you’re absolutely right. In the past it was social justice; that was the word we used. And now today we’re looking at the full breadth of equity, diversity, and inclusion and what it means today. Our code was last updated in 2016. This was before full acknowledgement of what we called EDI, so it will be updated, and you will see those new values once adopted.

Jensen: Still, I think that’s really progressive for an organization. I mean, I wrote a master’s thesis in 2018 about whether or not we were in a new racial justice movement, and I feel like there has been talks about it for a while, but, like, I’m a believer that progress is in many ways the enemy of progress. You know, we hit a major milestone and then we think that the work is done and we can just, you know, throw up our hands and kick up our feet and relax, and that’s not necessarily the case. And to hear that from an organization whose industry has historically been extremely discriminatory, I mean, just going back to, like, the Wagner Housing Act of 1934 where you’ve got to, like, tear down one old piece of public housing for each new public housing that’s built to, you know, keep private rents artificially high. So just to hear that, like, an organization has been thinking about these things for a while.

Silver: But let me just add that it is a day of reckoning for the American Planning Association because I think The Color of Law was a game changer, period. When I went to planning school, I knew about redlining, I knew about urban renewal, but when I read The Color of Law I did not know, I didn’t know how baked in racism was to the New Deal, to the American system of zoning and planning. So a lot of young people are now coming to the realization of this book. They have to realize a lot of us that we’re also learning it as well, that The Color of Law did not exist. We had little pieces about redlining, and we knew about racism and discrimination, but none of us knew how baked in it was to zoning and restrictive declarations and—you know, redlining we knew about.

So planning is now coming to terms. We just had a conference last week. I was stunned by the number of sessions about talking about White privilege, about talking about antiracism and talking about how do we deal with a history that we’ve now come to terms with of a planning past that many people now understand was both racist and discriminatory. So, like I said, there’s a day of reckoning; there’s an awakening, and so I’m optimistic that you will see change going forward. But I am also gratified that if you look at the planning profession, you know, it came out of this movement of a socialist movement where people were dying because of the way we built our cities, congestion, poor housing. And so public health, social reformers, and these planners came together to do something about cities because people were dying the way we build cities.

And then out of that came the planning profession, but they decided to go into the physical side, the congestion, the traffic, the buildings, the zoning, and social side of it really went on a separate track. They didn’t come together until the 1960s with Paul Davidoff and the advocacy movement. That was the first time it kind of reared its head again, because we said, “This is not fair how poverty is destroying our cities,” and then it kind of ebbed and flowed until we came recently to what’s happening today. So its roots were always there. There were those always fighting—Norm Krumholz who was another well-known planning figure—but now its day has come.

People are talking about it. It’s a day of reckoning. And now all the bad history, like a family reunion, like, “Oh, my goodness. Your uncle did that?” it’s now all coming out. “Oh, my goodness. I had no idea.” So it’s a homecoming but with it some of the bad history and bad stories are coming out. But the good news is it’s a chance also to reflect, confess, apologize, and promise to really do things differently going forward.

Jensen: Well, that’s exciting. And I’m excited to see what comes of it. And, I think, despite the pushback that’s being received by one side, I think that’s a good sign as well. I think, you know, one of the signs of a movement and change is that there’s countermovements, so all thumbs up over here. [LAUGHS] I want to move on a little bit. As you’ve reflected on your career and all of the projects you’ve done or been a part of, what have you determined are the nonnegotiable features, principles, or approaches to ensure that at the end of the day you have a great community to live, work, and play in?

Silver: Well, for one, personally—I’ve always said this many, many times—anytime I do any work, I will not violate the law, the Constitution, my professional code of ethics, my conscience, and my God. That is, to me, a hard line that I will not pass. And I will walk away from a job and pay the consequences. So, for me, that is very important. What I said earlier, to make sure we have a quality environment, is I want to make sure I challenge everyone and ask the right questions.

I’ve never said this publicly, but I’ll say it now kind of unveiling my secret, but I remember telling my staff, “We can’t always make decision-makers make the right decision, but I think it’s our job to make it as difficult as possible to make the wrong decision.” And it’s up to us to share those consequences, understand the communities, the people, their aspirations, their way of life is known so that when you are coming up with a plan, that you get to preserve the important thing that make places magical, as I said earlier, the memories, the stories. How one community wants to have a thriving environment may be different than another neighborhood. So to me all of those things are critically important. But we also need those champions and ambassadors to speak for those that don’t have a voice. To me, that is what’s missing and how very often certain communities get left behind, like I mentioned to you these 215 parks.

Where were the champions and advocates? Or this term “underserved.” If you have an underserved community, that means you have an over-served community, and if we have an over-served community—I’m very disturbed by that term underserved. They keep using it again and again. If you know it’s underserved for a decade, how could it still be underserved? Is that just pure neglect? And so, for me, having those values, for me personally not violating my code of ethics, my conscience and all the things I mentioned, and to be focused on making sure that everyone deserves a quality environment, to me, is that path and commitment to make sure that we have great places for people to work, to play, to grow, and to thrive.

Cohen: Wow. Those are great principles and features to use as a backstop on top of all of the items you mentioned already as far as, you know, diversity, equity, inclusion kind of being part of who you are and how you approach everything.

Silver: Yeah, and I’ll add one other thing that—you know, when I came to parks, parks and rec, like I said, it was new to me, but we did come up with a 21st century approach for visionary planning in our parks. But we kind of joke around that we’re not just parks and rec; we kind of call the department the department of fun, health, and happiness. You know, I believe every city should have a department of fun, and we really tried to take these public spaces and really make them the places where people can thrive. But then we added, after COVID, two more elements. And that’s one a friend of mine, Jay Pitter out in Canada introduced me to, this whole theory of just joy in public space, and after COVID, healing. And so we want to make sure that we now can pivot some of our public spaces to be those places where people can heal, whether it’s lifelong trauma through racism or the most recent trauma about the global pandemic, and so being in that role to plan not just for place but for people has been the most gratifying, to me, portion of my career. And I want to continue doing that because I do believe in creating those joyful, those healing places, the places for fun, health, and happiness really for all the residents wherever I work.

Cohen: I think that’s so important. I really appreciate you mentioning that. Jay Pitter certainly has a gift in how she frames out some of these challenges and things we need to invest in. And I’ve seen her talk about Black joy and how important that is. And I appreciate you adding that Black healing as well, because I think that’s an important part as well. So, yeah, that’s fantastic. Well, thank you Commissioner Silver. This has been truly amazing. We are just so grateful that you were able to take some time to share your perspective with us. Obviously has been gained over a career of great things. And we’re also quite appreciative that you’re going to be coming back to the Triangle and excited about that. And so you wrap up your term there in June, I believe. Is that right?

Silver: Still working on that end date, but, yeah, end of June, early July.

Cohen: Well, congratulations on the end of a wonderful career there in New York City and beginning of your return to North Carolina, and we look forward to having you back.

Silver: Thank you so much. This was somewhat like therapy, but I certainly enjoyed it. [LAUGHTER]

F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.