Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Power of the Public Park

The sun sets over East Nashville's Shelby Park
A quiet bench at East Nashville's Shelby Park
In a world obsessed with never-ending economic growth, fixations on job creation, harnessing the "free market,"procuring private investments, and incentivizing business development, we tend to ignore the profound positive impact of the humble public park. I would assert the well-developed park (or, especially, a thoughtful park system) can be an economic driver as strong as any Fortune 500 company opening shop in town. Before going all Bloomberg Business, though, let's table the crass money talk and begin with quality of life on its own terms.

Quality of Life
Shelby Park Sign
The social benefits of a public park are countless, community cohesion being chief among them. As a personal anecdote, a significant portion of my regular social circle has come into my life due to frequent visits to my local dog park, and an even greater portion of my community knowledge is the result of these same regular visits. Because a park is wholly non-discriminating, people from every local demographic are typically represented. From toddlers to the elderly, from the BMW wielding wealth manager to the pickup truck driving drywall hanger, everyone enjoys a park and is forced to co-mingle and co-exist with others in the community. We interact if in no other way than to exchange a smile or head nod, but often conversations are struck between those who might not otherwise have an opportunity (or make an opportunity) to interact. Furthermore, we do so as equal community members, not as the executive nodding to the janitor in the office restroom,  but a little more distanced from those loaded cultural pretenses. Even in a relatively quaint and mid-sized urban area like we have here in Nashville, parks offer a welcome respite from the oppressive push of concrete, steel, traffic, merciless advertising, and relentless sprawl. They offer room to breathe, a place to exercise or sit quietly, and, god forbid in a technology-worshipping 21st century, some small recognition that nature still has some relevance to human beings. Larger parks offer the opportunity for sports leagues and other recreation, fishing, farmer's markets, and community concerts. With that, we're heading back into econ talk. Parks don't only make communities happier; they make them more money.

Economic Investment
For those who think that investments in "non-essential" public entities are a waste of tax dollars and a symptom of bloated government, consider the broad economic ripple effect that public parks can have on a community. First of all, talk to any real estate agent or building developer about the financial power of parks. When property values increase (and they do by well-maintained parks), citizens have greater borrowing power which they use to buy local goods and services. Talk to a market or cafe owner with a shop close by. Talk to an entrepreneur launching their local business from a farmer's market held in a park.  Talk to all of the vendors who service local festivals and concerts held on park property.  When people choose to congregate in an area because they genuinely enjoy the space, nearby businesses prosper and new businesses are created in hopes of harnessing the power of crowds.

So, the next time you hit a local park for a picnic, hike, or simply some quiet solitude, remember that you aren't just making your life a little better, you're probably benefitting the entire community. Even the most rabid of free-market capitalists can relax and enjoy themselves without shame or discontent - leaving a patch of nature unspoiled for all to enjoy freely is actually good for your portfolio, not to mention your soul.

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