Mitchell J Silver

Aside from New York City and my adopted second hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, Sydney is one of my favourite cities in the world. Sydney is nearly unmatched for natural beauty and hospitality. But as a coastal capital in an age of changing climate and uncertain futures, Sydney faces similar challenges.

In New York City, parks are vital to the quality of life for residents and visitors by attracting over 130 million visits annually. New York City’s 1900 parks sit on nearly 11,753 hectares, 14 per cent of the city’s land, and include famous sites like Central Park and Coney Island Beach, as well as thousands of playgrounds and community parks. Our parks are crucial to public health, equity, and resilience. Now New York City is strategically addressing the incredible diversity of needs served by city parks – and creating a model for park systems around the world – by focusing on four distinct pillars:

1. People

Whether it serves Woolloomooloo or Williamsburg, a park is first and foremost a reflection of the people who use it – and we’re committed to making sure all New Yorkers have equal access to world-class parks right in their own neighbourhoods.

Through Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $285 million Community Parks Initiative, we identified more than 65 smaller parks that have not received substantive investment in two decades. Using direct input from communities across the city, we’re completely transforming the design and programming of these lynchpin neighbourhood parks.

2. Places

Parks and adjacent public spaces are urban dwellers’ living rooms, front yards and town squares, all rolled into one. It’s where we grow up, create memories, fall in love – and for Millennials, whom studies show are more interested in consuming experiences than goods, parks can provide powerful sites of public engagement.

However, New York’s public sphere has not always been designed for this multitude of uses, especially around park edges. This is another challenge we’re taking head on. The $50 million Parks Without Borders new design approach reimagines these park edges as spaces that bring together a unified public realm. Parks Without Borders improves the areas of connection between parks and their communities by making park entrances, edges, and adjacent and in-between spaces more attractive, accessible and active.

3. Programming

Parks are not only places to enjoy nature, they’re crucial sites to encourage New Yorkers to live healthier lifestyles and build community equity. Together with community and corporate partners, we offer free exercise courses, activity classes, Urban Park Rangers education and camping sessions, golf and tennis lessons, as well as summer camp, swim lessons – even computer coding lessons for girls.

In the past year alone more than one million New Yorkers have participated in NYC Parks programming, illustrating the high demand – and need – for robust accessible health, fitness and cultural offerings.

4. Resilience

Like Sydney, New York City is a coastal city. And like Sydney, we’re grappling with the effects of climate change and sea level rise – most of all on our shores. Superstorm Sandy in 2012 was a tragic realisation that our coastal areas are prone to catastrophic flooding, and that as manager of our waterfront, parks provides the first line of defence.

Working with other city, state and federal authorities, we are rising to the challenge along our coastline by constructing a state-of-the-art boardwalks that sets a global standard for resilience and storm protection. In addition to this, we’re bringing resilient innovation to our parks by designing them to withstand flooding, absorb storm water, and more.

By strategically addressing the future of our parks system, New York City is setting the groundwork for a more equitable and sustainable city. In Sydney, as in New York, parks and public spaces provide more than beauty and fresh air – they are absolutely necessary to our growth and survival.

Mitchell J Silver will be in Sydney for City of Sydney’s CityTalks Design – Greening Global Cities: planning parks with the wellbeing of people first, 17 May 2016.

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