Parks and Children

Jason Zengerle says I would like parks more if I had kids. I never find this to be a particularly useful way of talking about a policy issue. It used to be that when I criticized the home mortgage interest tax deduction, people would tell me I would feel differently if I had a mortgage. Well, today I have a mortgage and I don’t actually feel differently about the issue. I recognize that I now have a self-interest in not seeing a bad policy ended, but it’s still a bad policy. Rephrasing, then, perhaps it’s a “pro-family” measure to turn no-longer-used city properties into parks rather than into development.

If that’s true, then I think the case against building more parks in DC gets stronger. The District has been losing children for years, and shows every sign of continuing to do so. If the main purpose of parks is to be nice to children, then it’s strange to be adding parks while we’re losing kids. The whole reason the parcel is open in the first place is that DCPS has been closing schools to cope with the declining number of children.

That said, it’s far from clear to me that this analysis is actually correct. Developing the property would increase the supply of available housing. And cheaper housing is strongly pro-family, since people with kids obviously need more square feet per income-earner. Severely constrained housing supply encourages row houses to be used as “group houses”—households of unrelated individuals with three, four, five, or even six income earners—rather than as homes for families with children. Similarly, opening land to development increases the city’s tax revenue, thus increasing its capacity to provide public services. People like me don’t consume a great deal of public services but children, especially poor children, really benefit from the ability to provide generous services.

Again, none of this is to say that we should be trying to rid our cities of parks. But I do think this is something people ought to think a bit more critically about. Nobody wants to be “against the park,” because it sounds bad. But urban land is often extremely valuable, so you need to think seriously about using it in the most valuable possible ways. And part of that means making the most out of the parks we already have, making sure that real usable facilities exist and that they’re filled with people. A little patch of empty green space looks nice, but it’s a bad way to use a scarce resource.