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.