David Alpert at GGW asks us what we think about the up-and-coming DC neighborhood of NoMa and its lack of parks:
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?
I have a few thoughts about this. The first is that, to some extent, David answers his own question: developers have to fill every inch of space because of DC’s height restrictions. Lift the restrictions, and I think you’d see some more experimentation with taller towers and more green space.
But secondly, I’m not sure that I exactly agree that parks that take up large amounts of space are really the answer here. DC is the perfect example of a city with too many parks in all the wrong places – the Mall is a barren wasteland, and even a lot of the more rationally-placed parks are essentially expensive homeless shelters, but without the shelter part. I know that here in Philadelphia, at the corner of 40th and Market, there’s a park-like open space on the edge of a public housing project, and despite the large amount of foot traffic, El station, and bus stop, I have yet to see a single person in the park – people seem to prefer to hang out on the corner. And in terms of a little bit of green space to break up the monotony of buildings and some places for people to sit and eat on their lunch break when it’s nice out, NoMa already has a bit of that. There may be some truth to Ryan Advent’s suggestion that maybe people don’t really want large-ish parks as much as they say they do.
Finally, I’d like to address the issue of public goods. Despite what Ryan says, parks are a relatively good example of a public good. Sure, you could lock up the park, but that detracts from the value of it. But one way to overcome the public goods problem is to allow developers, if they can afford it, to buy up larger tracts of land, so that they can internalize all of the positive externalities of the park. If each building is in different hands, then you can’t overcome the free rider problem through market forces. But if one developer owns a large amount of land in a concentrated area, then all he captures more of the upside of a publicly-accessible park, and has more of an incentive to build one.
But at the end of the day, if the height restriction is lifted and developers are allowed to own larger plots of land and there’s still no open space (and we decide that we actually want parks), then we can discuss market failures and how to overcome them. But until we reach that point, it seems a bit unfair to blame the market for NoMa’s dearth of parks.
Benjamin Hemric saysNovember 30, 2010 at 2:41 am
I haven’t had the time to post comments on all the interesting posts that have appeared here in the last few days (hopefully I can catch up in the near future), but I’d like to make some quick comments on this post.
1) As I’ve mentioned in other comments on this blog, it seems to me that it’s important to make distinctions among the various types (or schools) of libertarians and market urbanists. To say that one believes in limited government and market urbanism doesn’t necessarily mean that one believes that municipalities shouldn’t have a very strong role in building and maintaining parks and that park development should instead be left substantially to the private sector.
2) While parks can, obviously, be a great boon to a city district, they can also be a drain and a drag — something that’s all too frequently overlooked in these types of discussions. Jane Jacobs’ “Death and Life of Great American Cities,” has a seminal discussion of parks along these lines.
It seems to me that parks are GREATLY overated, for the most part, and that in reality they tend to be more often a drain and a drag than a boon. A little park goes a long way and it seems to me that when discussing parks in cities, here’s a very nice example of where it’s often the case that “less is more.”
Since I’m not really knowlegable about D.C., I hestitate to talk about it, but at least from pictures, etc., (and from a very brief visit years ago), it seems to me that its a good candidate for a city that might have too much park land, and a city that could actually benefit from some additional park-less districts. (Stephen Smith seems to be making these points in his comments in the main post.) So it would be interesting to hear a more detailed discussion about why NoMa supposedly needs more parks.
3) While I do believe gov’t has a major role to play with regard to parks and other open spaces, I also think it’s a mistake to assume that private developers will always build to the maximum and never build parks, plazas or other beloved open spaces. Even before Manhattan’s zoning was changed to encourage the construction of private parks and plazas, a number of builders were building them on their own — the most well-known examples being, of course, Rockefeller Center and the Seagram Building (and there are other less well-known ones too).
Mon., November 29, 2010, 9:45 p.m.
Alon Levy saysNovember 30, 2010 at 5:58 am
Well, not all parks are alike. Some are just empty space with plants in front of a housing project. Others are more homely and can be teeming with people. For example, Riverside Park is quite crowded during the daytime – it offers nice views of the river, is suitably located away from noise, and depending on what you want can offer both shade and sun. Jane Jacobs herself realized this: thus she on the one hand fought against urban renewal-style parks, built without thought often in the shade of tall buildings, and on the other hand cut her teeth on the fight to close Fifth Avenue through Washington Square.
Stephen saysNovember 30, 2010 at 8:32 am
Yes, there are definitely different strands of libertarianism. Adam and I both tend towards the infamous anarchist end of the spectrum, but I avoid at all costs publicizing that in the posts because it scares people away – it’s difficult enough getting people to take libertarianism seriously; I’m not sure that I’m quite ready to come out as a full-fledged anarcho-capitalist (to say nothing of all the Lew Rockwell-type baggage that brings with it). And in any case, I generally focus my arguments on the more feasible incremental liberalization moves, and talk less about more radical things like selling off streets and parks.
I guess that’s what I was getting at when I said that we could discuss market failures, but only after we exhaust all the “government failures.” In truth I doubt there would be market failures with regards to parks (or, honestly, much of anything else) when all anti-density regulations are lifted, but I’m at least open to the possibility.
Chelsea saysNovember 30, 2010 at 2:07 pm
A couple of half-baked thoughts —
When people don’t make use of parks, it’s not necessarily because of location. Design plays a major role. I recall reading a study (the citation escapes me) that looked at how men and women use parks. Various design elements seem to make women less inclined to use the park, seemingly because of safety concerns (real or perceived). Pocket parks that are walled/fenced in are a great, if somewhat extreme, example of an urban space that can feel hostile to women.
If a park is publicly accessible, but privately owned, is there anything to prevent the private landowner from restricting the definition of “public” to exclude access to whatever populations he/she deems undesirable?
Chelsea saysNovember 30, 2010 at 2:11 pm
Here we go — some info on park usage by women, ethnic minority groups, and low-income populations (p. 88): http://books.google.com/books?id=tFVLm-A5hEgC&pg=PA88&lpg=PA88&dq=public+park+design+and+usage+women+versus+men&source=bl&ots=Jq5DbxVB1R&sig=7NeRuQC-BYtAqIdsM9vBQytVtsk&hl=en&ei=UgX1TIzSPIPGlQew5M2DBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBMQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false
Benjamin Hemric saysDecember 1, 2010 at 4:14 am
Many (most?) people seem to assume, mistakenly in my opinion, that parks (presumably well-designed and well-located ones) are needed to foster healthy urban districts, and that supposedly the more nicely designed, nicely located parks that are constructed, the merrier. Very rarely has anyone other than Jane Jacobs ever challenged such assumptions, or other related ones (which is not meant to imply that Jacobs would necessarily be endorsing my own views on parks, although her views have inspired my own).
And, by the way, despite all that talk about how widely accepted Jane Jacobs’ ideas are, it seems to me that most people are actually unaware of what her views on parks really were. Although Jane Jacobs has talked about parks in more than just the “parks” chapter in “Death and Life of Great American Cities,” this chapter (Chapter 5, “The uses of neighborhood parks”) is a good place to start. Read the entire chapter, of course, to get a fair idea of her views on parks (which, again, aren’t necessarily the same as mine, although they have inspired mine), but here are some wonderful “choice” quotes from this chapter. (The page numbers refer to the 1993 Modern Library Edition.) Whether one agrees with Jacobs or not, I think one will see that Jacobs casts a jaundiced eye on the underlying assumptions that most people, even today (in what is supposed to be the “Jane Jacobs era”) seem to have about the supposed value, “per se,” of (well-designed, well-located) parks.
Excerpt One, pg. 116
Conventionally, neighborhood parks or parklike open spaces are considered boons conferred on the deprived populations of cities. Let us turn this thought around, and consider city parks deprived places that need the boon of life and appreciation conferred on THEM. (Emphasis in the original — BH.)
Excerpt Two, pgs. 116-117
In orthodox city planning, neighborhood open spaces are venerated in an amazingly uncritical fashion, much as savages venerate magical fetishes. Ask a houser how his planned neighborhood improves on the old city and he will cite, as a self-evident virtue, More Open Space. Ask a zoner about the improvements in progressive codes and he will cite, again as a self-evident virtue, their incentives toward leaving More Open Space . . .
Excerpt Three, page 131
The main problem of neighborhood park planning boils down to the problem of nurturing diversified neighborhoods capable of using and supporting parks.
Excerpt Four, pages 133
“Outstandingly successful neighborhood parks seldom have much competition from other open spaces. This is understandable, because people in cities, with all their other interests and duties, can hardly enliven unlimited amounts of local, generalized park. City people would have to devote themselves to park use as if it were a business . . . to justify, for example, the plethora of malls, promenades, playgrounds, parks and indeterminate land oozes afforded in typical Radiant Garden City schemes, and enforced in official urban rebuilding by stringent requirements that high percentages of land be left open.
We can already see that city districts with relatively large amounts of generalized park, like Morningside Heights or Harlem in New York, seldom develop intense community focus on a park and intense love for it, such as the people of Boston’s North End have for their little Prado or the people of Greenwich Village have for Washington Square, or the people of Rittenhouse Square district have for their park. GREATLY LOVED NEIGHBORHOOD PARKS BENEFIT FROM A CERTAIN RARITY VALUE. (Emphasis mine — BH.)
Excerpt Five, page 145
Generalized parks can and do add great attraction to neighborhoods that people find attractive for a great variety of other uses. They further depress neighborhoods that people find unattractive for a wide variety of other uses, for they exaggerate the dullness, the danger, the emptiness.
Tues., November 30, 2010, 11:15 p.m.