Who Wants a Park?

David Alpert complains that upzoning of lots in NoMa has led to lots of building and he calls the lack of planned parks the result of a government mistake that should be rectified. He concludes:

And in the future, all cities and towns should avoid making the same mistake. Libertarian-leaning urbanists like Market Urbanism have recommended fewer development restrictions and greater reliance on the free market. In many cases that makes a lot of sense, but the NoMA experience shows a need for at least some mechanism to reserve for public goods some of the value an upzoning generates. Is there a more free market way to handle this?

There is some confusion here over just what is meant by the term “public good”. “Public good” doesn’t mean “something that every neighborhood should have” or “something that should be provided at no cost”. Rather, a public good is something that the market will under-provide in a socially suboptimal way. National defense is a common example. Private actors couldn’t easily collect the value of national defense services; they can’t force everyone to pay for an army, and having fielded one they can’t protect the homes of everybody in the country except for the folks that didn’t pay up. As a result, most people won’t pay and the country will go undefended, which is a bad outcome for everyone. Government is therefore necessary to levy taxes to pay for a national armed forces.

Are neighborhood parks like defense? Not necessarily. It is relatively easy to build a private park — simply put up a fence around the park and sell keys to the lock on the gate. But if private actors aren’t rushing to build parks, then maybe people don’t actually care as much about parks as we think they do. One might respond that lots of people benefit from having the park there, as a visible green space, say, or from knowing that they could use it if they wanted to. Private actors can’t capture these benefits, and the market might then underprovide parks. But a government could tax everyone in a neighborhood and use the proceeds to buy land at market price to be turned into a park. We might guess that a neighborhood park would raise property values, and if this gain is captured in property tax revenues, then that money could go toward the purchase of the land.

If residents are willing to tax themselves to pay for the land for a park, then great. That essentially solves the public good problem. But what if they don’t want to tax themselves to pay for the park?

One obvious conclusion to draw from this is that parks are the kinds of thing people say they want but don’t actually care much about. Or rather, they’re happy to take parks when those parks are provided for them “free”, through government regulation, but not when they have to pay for the benefit they’d receive, which should tell us that the benefit is not all that great.

There is an alternative way of looking at this. We could conclude that the people who pay the most in taxes in a neighborhood don’t want a public park, in part because they have easy access to other kinds of recreational space — private gyms, golf courses, vacation homes, and so on — while the people who pay less in taxes (that is, the poor) lack easy access to such areas and would benefit significantly from a public park. It might then be politically difficult to tax a neighborhood like NoMa to pay for the land for a park, since the people paying the taxes and the people receiving the benefits are different folks.

In this case, it might well be a good idea for the government to create some public park space. But it does not follow that every neighborhood needs a park (as Jane Jacobs noted, scarcely used parks can be disamenities rather than amenities). And it does not follow that the government should provide these parks by regulating them into existence (in the same way that the government should not provide free school lunches for disadvantaged kids by passing a rule that whenever anyone in the city makes a sandwich they should make two, one of which can be sent to the local school).

Urban land is extremely valuable, and city governments are generally far too quick to limit development on it. Limited development hurts everyone, including the poor; it may well be the case that poor students would prefer to have extra tax revenues from more intensive development used on their behalf than to have land set aside for a park. Sometimes, government use of city land for one thing or another, including the occasional park, is justified, but the use of regulation to deliver these ends fuels the pernicious idea that land obtained in such ways is somehow “free” — there to be appropriated by the local government for whatever is deemed by city officials to be the highest and best use. It isn’t.

Comments

  1. This is a great explanation. As a thought experiment, I’d like to take some of your statements (I strongly agree with) and replace the word “park” with “High-Speed Rail” just to see how it sounds. We could use the word “highway” just the same, but HSR is a popular topic here:

    ‘But if private actors aren’t rushing to build High-Speed Rail, then maybe people don’t actually care as much about High-Speed Rail as we think they do.’

    and

    ‘One obvious conclusion to draw from this is that High-Speed Rail is the kind of thing people say they want but don’t actually care much about. Or rather, they’re happy to take High-Speed Rail when High-Speed Rail is provided for them “free”, through government regulation, but not when they have to pay for the benefit they’d receive, which should tell us that the benefit is not all that great.’

  2. Hyena says:

    Market Urbanism,

    But first you have to find out whether you can build such a line or if you’re just going to have too many regulatory obstacles. We could apply the same cut-and-paste to power plants in California.

    We’d be wrong, oh so deeply wrong. People care a lot about power plants and developers would build them. It just so happens that it may as well be illegal to do so.

  3. If all that was holding back HSR from being built by private developers was regulation, I’d be fighting to end that regulation.

    What seems to be holding back high-speed rail development is that developers don’t have the power to force people who don’t use it to pay for it and to force people who don’t want to give up their land to get out of the way…

  4. UserGoogol says:

    An important difference in the analogy is that it is “relatively easy to build a private park,” but it is extremely difficult to build a private railway, with or without government regulations. Acquiring a little bit of land and fencing it in is one thing. Acquiring a reasonably straight contiguous thread of land which stretches for hundreds of miles is a very different thing.

  5. Ohm says:

    This is stupid.

    Of course public parks are good for every neighborhood, rich or poor.

    Rich people have kids. Rich people take kids to parks to play. Rich people don’t take kids to a golf course or the gym to play.

    Scarcely used parks are almost always those with lack of funds. Fund them a little more, and voila! Awesome park with people that use it.

    Again, stupid, stupid article.

  6. Ted says:

    I think the key here is that good parks have benefits, not just for a neighborhood, but for the whole city. So it really has to be handled governmentally.

    I don’t think the benefits are purely a question of quote-using-unquote the park, either. A lot of the discussion above seems to me to miss the point that the benefits of a park are aesthetic as much as recreational. They change the way people perceive the city.

    When I lived in Boston I walked by parks much more often than I played frisbee (or whatever) in them. But the whole experience of “Boston” would have sucked without those parks, because I would have felt trapped. You just need to have some places in a city where sight lines aren’t obstructed by nearby buildings.

  7. I’m with Ted. Parks don’t only benefit the people who live in the neighborhood.

    Parks impact the attractiveness of one metropolitan area versus others, for example. Who would move from Sacramento to Tacoma if the latter didn’t have any parks?

    Also, having visited a few cities without severely limited park-space in the urban core (Beirut, Amman, Madrid, etc.), I’d say it’s clear that parks have benefits beyond frisbee and barbecues.

    Does anyone really think that Hyde Park, Central Park or Sydney’s Botanical Gardens don’t have utility beyond daily use by proximate residents?

  8. MDB says:

    @Ohm:

    “Scarcely used parks are almost always those with lack of funds.”

    [citation needed]

  9. Paul Salama says:

    I’m going to agree with Ohm that this is stupid; of course there are too many parks for the man at the computer screen.
    The difference between a park in walking distance and one requiring public transportation or even a car ride, for a ten-year-old or caretaker with child, is enormous. It’s exactly the sort of public good people would tend to undervalue – “I’ll still take my kid to the park just as much, even though it’s 10 minutes further at our new place” – probably not.
    You explain little as to why parks shouldn’t be viewed as public goods, yet criticize them for not being built in sufficient number by private actors i.e. behaving like a public good.
    As anyone who’s seen or read Holly Whyte’s “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces” will tell you, parks, especially urban parks, are enhanced by the number of people in them, so private parks will never have the value of public ones. Fences in particular detract from the value of a park. Holly Whyte inspired the remodeling of Bryant Park in the ’70s, namely removing the fencing, turning it from a junkie-filled “disamenity” to one of the most valuable public assets in the world. But this is an issue of design, not of the value of parks.

    Market Urbanism, HSR is a public good but one with competition, and one where the competition is heavily subsidized and its external costs are not fully borne by the users. So there’s no way a company could recoup the capital + operating expenses of a line. Historically you see lots of private companies setting up rail and trolley lines, which were profitable because there were no alternatives (early private roads, turnpikes, failed because people would simply drive around the toll booths). Still transportation=public good; the market equilibrium will never be socially optimal.

  10. OGT says:

    Market Urbanism, that’s basically true. Of course, Avent spends a good deal of time trying to convince readers that they should want to tax themselves to provide HSR.

    Actually, though the case for parks as a public good is stronger than Avent’s Econ 101 reasoning allows:

    Now scientists have begun to examine how the city affects the brain, and the results are chastening. Just being in an urban environment, they have found, impairs our basic mental processes. After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control. While it’s long been recognized that city life is exhausting — that’s why Picasso left Paris — this new research suggests that cities actually dull our thinking, sometimes dramatically so…

    One of the main forces at work is a stark lack of nature, which is surprisingly beneficial for the brain. Studies have demonstrated, for instance, that hospital patients recover more quickly when they can see trees from their windows, and that women living in public housing are better able to focus when their apartment overlooks a grassy courtyard. Even these fleeting glimpses of nature improve brain performance, it seems, because they provide a mental break from the urban roil…

    This research is also leading some scientists to dabble in urban design, as they look for ways to make the metropolis less damaging to the brain. The good news is that even slight alterations, such as planting more trees in the inner city or creating urban parks with a greater variety of plants, can significantly reduce the negative side effects of city life. The mind needs nature, and even a little bit can be a big help.

    http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/01/04/how_the_city_hurts_your_brain/

  11. Malcolm K. says:

    Paul is absolutely right about high-speed rail. As long as highways and airports continue to be seen unquestionably as public goods, yet railroads are treated as private enterprises, we will never have a “free market” for transportation, nor a socially or environmentally optimal distribution of passenger and freight trips between travel modes.

    The private sector will never provide the kind of transportation system necessary for an economy like ours without significant government help. If you believe that the transportation market should be truly free — i.e. that the price of transportation should lead each traveler or freight shipper to make the most optimal mode choice — then you should advocate either for the subsidization of railroads at a level equivalent to that of highways, or for a degree of de-subsidization of highways and airports.

  12. If you believe that the transportation market should be truly free — i.e. that the price of transportation should lead each traveler or freight shipper to make the most optimal mode choice — then you should advocate either for the subsidization of railroads at a level equivalent to that of highways, or for a degree of de-subsidization of highways and airports.

    I advocate the later – no subsidies. In my comment, I noted that the word highway could be used interchangeably with HSR.

  13. Historically you see lots of private companies setting up rail and trolley lines, which were profitable because there were no alternatives (early private roads, turnpikes, failed because people would simply drive around the toll booths).

    Is that really the reason they failed, or did you just make that up?

    Still transportation=public good; the market equilibrium will never be socially optimal.

    That’s an opinion which can never be proven. Are you willing to impose your opinion of “socially optimal” upon an entire society?

  14. Paul Joice says:

    Two words for Ryan: existence value.

    A few more words: Parks are public facilities for recreation. There’s no doubt that many private recreation facilities exist, and in many cases people prefer them (witness the abundance of condo buildings with pools, when public pools in high density neighborhoods would be much more efficient). But if you think about the “Bowling Alone” argument, I think there’s something to be said that the collection individual preferences for private recreation may be less socially optimal than equivalent public recreation spaces.

  15. DBonar says:

    What’s the “bowling alone” argument? I haven’t read the book and don’t understand the point you are trying to make.

  16. Paul Joice says:

    My point is this:

    Public spaces offer a place for people to interact and build social capital (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_capital). Think about being in a bowling league vs. playing bowling by yourself on the Wii. Being in a bowling league, you make friends, you make connections that might help you professionally, and you build camaraderie that’s good for society.

    Parks and similar public recreation facilities are a “public good” in the true sense of the word insofar as they have positive externalities – the social capital they help build is available to everyone, rather than just members.

  17. norb says:

    This is totally jumping the shark here, Ryan. Of course a park is a public good.

    But really, in Noma, there are no residents yet! So given the fact that the NOMA BID and Tommy Wells are endorsing the idea, then I would say, the people who want the park, as you ask, are the people conducting business and representing the area. And they want tax dollars that they will help generate through future property tax revenue to go towards this purpose.

  18. Paul Salama says:

    Market Urbanism,
    I’m quoting Owen Gutfreund on turnpikes: http://www.amazon.com/Twentieth-Century-Sprawl-Reshaping-Landscape/dp/0195141415, but the internets seem to say the turnpikes were taken over by the States during the Progressive Era.
    As for the question of transportation as public good, I hope it’s reasonable to see that the connectivity provided benefits everyone, though some value it less while others couldn’t afford to pay the value it provides them. It doesn’t matter if I know the socially optimal amount, only that a free market will never provide it. And in case you were wondering, as an urban planner, imposing my opinion of “socially optimal” is exactly what I want to do.

  19. as an urban planner, imposing my opinion of “socially optimal” is exactly what I want to do.

    I suspected I was dealing with an authoritarian sociopath.

    I wouldn’t argue that the free market will provide a “socially optimal” anything, because “socially optimal” is purely subjective. Every single person would have a different subjective opinion of what is socially optimal. That is why it is absolutely anti-social for you to impose your subjective opinion on your neighbors.

  20. NW Snobbery says:

    I would love to see a Volta Park Jr. in NoMA.

  21. Paul Joice says:

    Market Urbanism: it’s off topic, but “socially optimal” is not necessarily purely subjective. The way economists use the term refers to the fact that a bunch of individuals, making decisions that appear to optimize their personal benefit-cost ratio, can have costs (or fail to generate benefits) that accrue to all of society.

  22. Market Urbanism: it’s off topic, but “socially optimal” is not necessarily purely subjective. The way economists use the term refers to the fact that a bunch of individuals, making decisions that appear to optimize their personal benefit-cost ratio, can have costs (or fail to generate benefits) that accrue to all of society.

    Yes, but the value of those benefits are subjective. Sure, someone can put a dollar amount on it, but the value individuals put on in would vary among all people. So, an economist can attribute a value to a certain benefit based on some metric, but as soon as they make a conclusion that something should be imposed on others, they are proposing to impose their subjective value system upon others that do not value the benefits exactly the same. Thus, it is narcissistic at best, and sociopathic at worst.

    It is off topic and maybe I’ll write a post on the ethics of planning based upon this conversation, where we can continue in a more appropriate forum.

  23. Reid says:

    Late to the party, but I’ll add that one thing that seems to be missing from this discussion is that parks generally get built while a neighborhood is being laid out. It’s unrealistic to expect that parks would emerge from existant neighborhoods absent some radical change in usage, like the High Line. Also, people are willing to pay for a park, but they pay for it in their housing costs.

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