Urban 'greenprint' essential for city of tomorrow. Hold on, it's coming

Mitchell Silver's name might not ring a bell to the average person, but in the world of urban planning he's quite the rock star. He's the director of the planning department in Raleigh, North Carolina, and  president-elect of the American Planning Association. In his 25 years in the business, he's been involved in in numerous notable projects, including a re-envisioning of Harlem's riverfront and Jamaica Center in New York City as well as the revitalization of neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Silver was recently in Detroit for the Michigan Association of Planning conference that was held at the Renaissance Center October 20 to 23, and Model D had the chance to sit down with him at Starbucks for a little chat. We discussed the role of urban design in achieving social equity, national policies that can help aging industrial cities like Detroit, zoning and building codes, urban agriculture and the Detroit Works initiative among other topics.

In his first session at the conference, Silver called on planners to play an active role in bettering society, so we started with a conversation about earlier schools of thought -- i.e., urban renewal -- which were once considered progressive and are now pretty much universally decried and derided.

Silver was adamant in pointing out that "urban renewal was really never a planner's idea, but planners were the agents, they had to implement it."

With roots in Le Corbusier's ideas about a "contemporary" or "radiant" city, urban renewal wiped out the existing grid and over-wrote it with planned communities. Here we got the good of it -- Lafayette Park -- and, more frequently, the bad -- Herman Gardens and Jeffries Projects, to name just a couple local examples of the policy's implementation.

Silver says the planning profession recognizes that urban renewal was a "bad mistake" and calls for his peers to return to their roots. "Social equity is the foundation of our profession: to protect public health, safety and welfare," he says. A planner's goals should be to design "livable cities, not just for the prosperous."

In terms of national policies that can help achieve such ends, Silver pines for the days of the federal 701 planning grants that were administered by HUD in the 1950s and 60s. Simply put, the comprehensive program directed funds to urban areas for the purposes of planning. A similar program would "start to help cities plan for the future," he says. "There has got to be a focused effort on cities. They are the engines of prosperity. They drive the economy and we still have a disconnect, abandoned central cities."

One current HUD program Silver finds useful is HOPE VI, which is intended to transform low-income housing projects into mixed-income developments. Detroit has seen Herman Gardens start to take shape as Gardenview Estates and Jeffries West become Woodbridge Estates.

From the macro to the micro, conversation shifts to Silver's efforts to oversee a total rewrite of Raleigh's development code. He points out that the existing code in many cities makes it "very very hard to build mixed use and very very easy to build crap -- we need to flip that."

With the recent Theatre Bizarre situation being a timely example that code doesn't always speak to what a city wants to look like in the future, Silver warns that codes are only as good as the values that guide them. "We want to make sure that our code sends the right message, so cities that do not work on their plan and vision first should not work on their code," he says. "Code is where the rubber hits the road. We like to say 'right rules for right places.' "

This visioning has taken place over the last several years in Raleigh. Silver says the city's "greenprint" calls for "smarter, more efficient" investment that is sustainable and dense. Before launching the effort to the public, two years of research had been undertaken. "We had all the evidence, everything had all been analyzed," he says.

Result: near-universal approval. "Only four percent of residents objected to the plan," says Silver. "We went to residents, they bought into it and then City Council approved it because the plan had a lot of public support."

Here in Detroit, these things are beginning to happen, most notably with the Detroit Works initiative. "What Kresge and (urban planning consultant) Toni Griffin (and deputy director of the City of Detroit Planning and Development Department) Marjorie Winters are doing is on target, I believe (Detroit is) moving in the right direction," says Silver, who then cautions patience. "To address the problems in Detroit will take a generation."

Silver advises Detroit to consider immigration as a strategy for growth (i.e., Global Detroit) and to not leave race relations off of the agenda. "You need to address race head on, work through some of those issues," he says, acknowledging that planners might not be able to. "You may need another team to deal with social issues."

Whatever comes out of Detroit Works, Silver hopes it is "authentic" to Detroit. "(The plan) needs to come organically (if you want to be) attracting the creative class," he says.

A specific project Silver was involved with is Harlem on the River, a revisioning of a slice of the Hudson River that Mayor Giulani had pegged for a hotel. (Visions of casinos here in Detroit in the 1990's anyone?) "This was (Harlem's) only access to water, fishing," he says.

Silver and his team's preservation plan worked with black residents of Harlem, Dominican residents from Manhattanville and the Heights: Morningside, Washington and Hamilton, as well as whites from the Upper West Side. "This did not (typically) happen," he said. The result: "Diverse ideas became the core of the plan's success."

The unity in numbers proved to be insurmountable. "Giulani conceded and put money behind it -- 10 years later, there is a $20 million park on the waterfront, and Columbia (University is) expanded," says Silver. "It's a pearl on the outstanding necklace of public space in New York."

Harlem on the River is a prime example of Silver's core beliefs: planning, when well-executed, leads to economic development while embracing diversity and social equity. He calls on planners, as "guardians of our future" to similarly step up to the plate in defense of our urban centers. "To solve the problems of Detroit, New Orleans, Camden, we need to use creative, innovative thinking," he says.

Kelli Kavanaugh is Model D Development News editor.

Mitchell Silver - Photo courtesy of Michigan Association of Planning

Lafayette Park and the Dequindre Cut - Detroit - Photo Marvin Shaouni

Harlem on the River - Photo courtesy of Mitchell Silver

Harlem on the River - Photo courtesy of Mitchell Silver

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.