How Many Parks Do You Need?

The District of Columbia has many, many, many fewer schoolchildren than it once did, so there’s been a trend toward closing DCPS facilities and trying to reuse the sites for something else. Office space for city agencies is a popular idea, but sometimes that doesn’t work out for various reasons. In that case, the tendency is for the local community to look fondly on various ideas to build parks instead. I suppose this is idiosyncratic of me, but I’m a bit of a park-skeptic. Obviously, a park is better than a collapsing abandoned school. And in my neighborhood there’s a bit of a “park versus parking lot” dispute in which case I’d clearly prefer the park. But as a general matter, I’d rather see this land put to use with buildings and stuff:

The future of the former Gage-Eckington school

The future of the former Gage-Eckington school

It seems to me that human beings have some kind of psychological tick that leads them to overestimate the amount of time they’re going to want to spend engaged in outdoor recreating. It’s one thing if you live in California, where the weather’s nice all of the time, but here in the Northeast how much use do we really get out of parks? People don’t go to the park at night, or during the winter, or when it’s raining. Compare that to, say, an apartment building with some retail on the ground floor. People go to stores all the time. Obviously, that’s not to say that an ideal city would have zero parkland—parks are nice. But it’s not clear to me that we’re suffering from a park shortage. And in environmental terms, it’s much better for the planet to construct additional housing units in already-urbanized areas than to pack a bit more green space in the city and have more people living in sprawling exurbs.

Part of the issue I that I think there’s not enough “in it” for the local community to allow development as opposed to park creation. An elected official doesn’t want to be in the position of giving land to insidious developers instead of using it for public purposes like a park. But perhaps the lion’s share of the revenue from the auction of a city-owned facility could be given directly to a local community association. That could be spent on improving the public spaces that already exist in the area or dealing with whatever other local issues seem pressing. It does seem to me that DC and other cities suffer from more a problem of quality in our public spaces—too much basically empty, unprogrammable land—rather than a lack of quantity.