Mitch Silver’s Real Talk on “Planning with Purpose”

By Lance Gloss, Editor-in-Chief

Professional planners need special knowledge to accomplish their core tasks. We know this. It may be even more important that planners understand why they do these tasks. This was one of Mitch Silver’s main messages as he connected the dots between ethics and outcomes in the planning profession.

The celebrated planner graced the DCRP with a presentation on November 18, thanks to the Siler Distinguished Lecture Series and a special grant from the College. Silver’s list of credentials could fill a book. Suffice it to say that he is one of a select few in the AICP College of Fellows, and that he famously served as the New York City Parks Commissioner, Planning Director for the City of Raleigh, and President of the APA. Today, he presents to planners and developers across the country as a consultant with McAdams.

Silver’s words for DCRP focused on planning with purpose — the motivations for planners’ work. He asked planners to think about their Code of Ethics, which centers on the public good. He also highlighted the ethical commitments of allied professions and meditated on the Creed that professional engineers profess upon licensing. He advised young planners to see their ethics as a compass and a rudder. He asked that we feel and live our ethics, not just talk about them or use them for cover. In short, he advised that planners “be their values.”

Silver did a brilliant job cutting through the jargon on diversity, equity, and inclusion to get at the core messages of this movement. He noted that he—and other insightful planners—prioritized DEI (Diversity Equity Inclusion) long before it became an institutional slogan and a must-have. He noted that the growing clutter of verbal soup and bureaucracy regarding DEI can get in the way of real outcomes. What, he asked, are the possible consequences of naming a DEI officer for your organization? A positive outcome might be showing that the organization will dedicate resources to inclusion. A negative outcome might be an absolution of responsibility in other areas of the organization. Shouldn’t the whole organization need to live these values? Shouldn’t all resources be deployed with a mind to inclusion?

In this vein, Mitch Silver suggested that equity—an idea usually communicated with lengthy, complex metaphors—can be better communicated as fairness. Fairness. People understand the idea of fairness. Silver suggested that even a child can tell the fair from the unfair.

Silver talked through a policy of fairness in New York’s system of public parks. When he took the job in 2014, his team systematically reviewed where the City has spent funds on parks. Though NYC had spent hundreds of millions on parks in the preceding two decades, more than 200 parks had not received a single dime. This, said Silver, was not fair.

To remedy the situation, he “bumped those parks to the front of the long line for funding.” He shared truly touching stories of transformation. Fenced off asphalt slabs punctured by runaway weeds became places of joy and sanctuary. Children’s lives became richer overnight. The social worlds of seniors and disabled people were infused with energy.

Mitchell also stressed what he called “the down payment.” In many scenarios, a down payment is what cities must make to build public confidence. When walking into a public engagement session, Silver advises, don’t come in and ask people for their input. Especially in communities where the input has been chronically ignored for decades, such a request can ring hollow. Instead, come to the public when you are able to say, “we have two million dollars already committed to spending on your priorities. Tell us how to spend it.”

Down payments are made in many ways. When NYC’s underfunded parks moved to the front of the line, a full rebuild couldn’t be launched for all of them at once. So, the Parks staff made a down payment in the form of fresh coats of paint, new grass, new benches, taking down fences, and incorporating the sidewalk as the outer sphere of the park.

Silver also discussed ways to reach the public on the real terms of their lives. He advised embracing non-traditional tools. Under his watch, and during the lockdowns of the pandemic, NYC Parks put signs on trees reading, “It’s Okay to Hug Me.” They took down “No Loitering” signs in parks and replaced some with pro-loitering signs. After all, says Silver, loitering is what we do in parks.

Loitering is for parks, hugging is for trees, and planning is for people. Mitch Silver would have planners remember that. Be fair, be honest, and be creative. With these commitments as a down payment, planners should have much less trouble identifying and supporting the public good.

Lance is a second-generation urban planner with a passion for economic development strategies that center natural resource conservation and community uplift. He served as Managing Editor of the Urban Journal at Brown University, Section Editor at the College Hill Independent, and Senior Planner for the City of Grand Junction. Hailing from sunny Colorado, he earned his BA in Urban Studies at Brown and will earn his Master in City and Regional Planning at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2023. Outside of work, he can be found on his bicycle, in the woods, or on the rugby pitch.

Edited by Jo Kwon

Featured Image by UNC DCRP DEI

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