Playing for Real

September 1, 2013, Department, by Elizabeth Beard

Elizabeth Beard, Managing EditorI must confess that for a few years, I was addicted to the computer game Sim City. If you’ve never played it, the scenario is that you are the mayor of a city you must build from the ground up. You create the utilities, roads, emergency services and amenities (like parks), and then, if you have zoned everything appropriately, a beautiful and prosperous city will spring up on your screen. One major irritant of the game simulation was that the parks seemed to cost too much to maintain and generated too little economic activity in return. Sometimes I think that is how many city governments actually view parks and recreation — as an expensive drain on the budget that doesn’t really help the overall level of prosperity.

Although I am reluctant to assign too much brilliant insight to private-sector investors (the mortgage bubble comes to mind), a couple of decades ago they did begin to see the potential in parks to generate real-estate value, commercial activity and tourism dollars — the potential that many cities seem to overlook. When local governments found park spending an easy item to cut in response to rising costs, a diminishing tax base and shrinking federal funding, it must have seemed like a godsend when private funding began to fill in the gaps.

There’s just one small catch. In our proudly capitalistic society, private individuals and companies answer only to themselves and their investors. Whereas a city government has an obligation to equitably fund parks and recreation across all areas, private funders are free to pick and choose parks that are highly visible, potentially profitable or of some inherent interest to their own concerns. That means local governments face a tricky balancing act when they enter public/private partnerships in order to ensure that all of their citizens benefit and that great parks remain accessible to everyone, as New York Times columnist Michael Powell explores in this month’s cover story.

Now that’s not to say that if Sim City had had an option for private companies or donors to fund my parks, I would have turned away the free simoleons either. But although economic arguments are among the most persuasive for building a strong park system, parks and recreation is about more than dollars and cents. It’s about using a public resource for public good to enhance conservation, health and wellness, and social equity. Private funding can help achieve that, but it’s still the public sector’s responsibility.