Cities thrive when governments focus on parks, not mega-projects

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Appeared in the National Post and Calgary Herald

Mayors and councillors across North America regularly spend taxpayer cash trying to revitalize neighbourhoods or entire cities. They often do so in expensive and ineffective ways: grand schemes that wipe away existing neighbourhoods or street markets, only to be replaced with massive convention centres (mostly unused by locals) or costly new arenas for professional sports teams.

Such attempts are almost always costly and misallocate tax money; they rarely revitalize cities to the extent advertised by proponents. After all, when is the last time you grabbed a coffee and went for a walk around the edge of a hockey, basketball or football stadium? Most people prefer to hoof it around a lake, river, ocean-side, or in local parks and on pedestrian-friendly streets with cafes and shops.

Too often, such tax-financed developments just create mammoth parking lots surrounded by mostly dead zones once some three-hour game or day-long convention is over.

Politicians thus too often forget the tried-and-true basics for livable and attractive cities: keep the streets safe, collect the garbage, ensure the taps pump out clean water, that good schools exist and that playgrounds and parks are clean and desirable.

They also occasionally ignore the importance of not overtaxing their citizens or discouraging business, also critical for a city’s health. Every city, ultimately, has a commercial basis: people need to first make a living and only afterward can they (and their governments) spend money on the niceties.  Discourage the first and you get less of the second.

If all of the above seems obvious, the reality is that desirable urban features can be foregone in the pursuit of civic megaprojects; they can also be crowded out by too-powerful city unions that unreasonably divert tax dollars from pleasant amenities for all to above-market compensation for the few.

But some recent stories, in Edmonton, and in New York City where Central Park just received a $100-million gift, should give city-lovers the hope that a re-focus on the basics of city life is possible.

In Edmonton, city council turned down Edmonton Oilers’ owner Daryl Katz’s demand for another $6-million a year in taxpayer subsidies, this for a proposed new half-billion dollar NHL arena. (The demand was on top of the hundreds of millions of dollars in previously promised taxpayer funding.)

If Edmonton’s refusal torpedoes a taxpayer-financed rink, great; maybe that will allow everyone to concentrate on what can actually revitalize a neighbourhood.

It doesn’t take an urban development specialist to figure out what can attract people to a neighbourhood, including a willingness to pay top dollar for nearby real estate: beautiful urban parks. Think Stanley Park in Vancouver, Mount Royal in Montreal, the relatively new Millennium Park in Chicago, or one of the world’s premier urban parks, Central Park in New York City.

Recall New York and Central Park in particular. In the 1970s, New York was an overtaxed, crime-ridden, in-hock-to-government-unions falling-apart metropolis. Central Park, a magnificent late 19th century creation, was dilapidated  in part because of misplaced political priorities.

New York was a classic example of what happens when those in charge of cities forget what makes them desirable for citizens.

Space doesn’t permit detail on all the reforms enacted in New York, most of which started with the election of Rudolph Giuliani as mayor in 1993. Here’s a snapshot: a crackdown on petty crime, reform of civic spending, making the city more business-friendly and less corrupt, and a reduction in taxes.

One pre- Giuliani reform was the restoration of Central Park. The genesis for that began in 1980 when a group of New Yorkers formed the Central Park Conservancy. Shortly thereafter, the Conservancy, a charitable foundation, took over management of the park in a public-private partnership with the city.

As an example of what can happen when private citizens drive reform, consider that since 1980, $600 million has been raised for restoring Central park to its former glory; $470 million of that came from private sources (with the recent $100-million gift a nice top-up). At present, the park’s annual operating budget is $46 million with 85 per cent financed out of Conservancy funds. Central Park is again magnificent. That’s because it’s not run as part of a big-city bureaucracy, part of the problem pre-1980.

When local politicians ignore street-level concerns, or wrongly focus on what doesn’t work (megaprojects), or engage in sweetheart deals with civic unions at the expense of more efficient services or needed capital expenditures, the result is a less-than-attractive city. That was a lesson New York learned the hard way.

More positively, when politicians and citizens focus on improving the amenities citizens need and use every day, parks being the best example, a city can thrive as a pleasant and desirable metropolis.

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