In a post concerning the possible privatization of City of Wichita parks maintenance, I called for, in a rather oblique way, privatization of city parks. A commenter picked up on this and wrote “I’m wondering how the parks would be decided by the market. Wouldn’t the parks have to charge an entry fee in that case?”
It’s a good question. Broadly, what would happen if the City of Wichita decided not to provide public parks? Would there then be any privately owned parks? What would these parks be like, if there were any?
As there are very few examples of privately-owned parks in America, we don’t really know how privately-owned parks would work. But that’s no reason we shouldn’t consider this idea.
The first thing we need to do is to dissuade ourselves of the false notion that the present system of municipal parks means free parks. They aren’t free. They seem to be free — or nearly so — to those who use them, because there is no admission fee charged.
One way that private parks might work is that their owners would charge an admission fee. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there would be an impenetrable fence surrounding the park and a toll gate at the single entrance. There could be other ways to collect admission fees.
Another way that a private owner might generate revenue and potential profit through owning a park is by the selling of concessions. Besides the obvious selling of food and drink, some other examples come to mind. A vendor might rent lockers for the storage of bicycles, so that it would be convenient for people to drive to the park and use their bicycles.
Vendors might rent roller skates. I rented these in college on the KU campus, and it was fun. Other things could be rented too, even paddle boats on the Little Arkansas River, as in the old days.
A private park might offer nanny service, so parents could drop off their young children for a session of supervised play.
A private park would probably provide security services so that its patrons feel safe. Would people be willing to pay for that?
A private park might sell advertising or sponsorship. Philanthropy could play a role, too.
So there could be many ways in which private parks could operate.
While the goal of private park owners would usually be to attract many people to patronize their parks, private owners would be able to exclude people from the park. Advocates for the present parks workers say that the workers clean the public parks of needles and syringes. This indicates that at present, the parks are used for activities that most people, especially families, don’t want to be around. Would a private owner of a park have an incentive to keep his park free of illegal drug users? Absolutely — and much more so than it appears the Wichita police do. And being privately owned, the owner would have the right to exclude drug users, noisemakers, smokers, beer drinkers, panhandlers, fornicators, proselytizers, sidewalk preachers, politicians, and others from his park. He could even impose a dress code.
(Which reminds me of a joke: A conservative said, “I am distressed by the idea of fornication in public parks.” The libertarian replied, “I am distressed by the idea of public parks.” )
Privately-owned parks would bring benefits, the nature of which we really can’t foresee and predict. Entrepreneurs are highly motivated to discover and meet consumer wishes and demands. They can experiment to see what works. The costs of their failures are born only by them. When public officials take risks and fail, they’re criticized for wasting public funds. This is a reason why little innovation comes from government.
By unleashing entrepreneurial creativity, there might be a tremendous diversity of parks springing up with features we can’t even dream of now.
Entrepreneurs don’t have to go through plodding approval of long-range plans as Wichita recently did with its Parks, Recreation, and Open Space (PROS) plan. This plan, according to its brochure, took 18 months to develop. How will it be funded? According to a memo accompanying the plan, “Present funding levels are insufficient to adequately cover the costs of the Department’s current facilities and programs.” I don’t sense much groundswell of support for raising revenue to increase this funding. So are we left to conclude that the method of public funding of the parks is failing? It seems so.
Back to my post from the other day: Another commenter wrote that the views I hold are those of “free-market extremists.” To which I reply: thank you for noticing.
This writer also wrote: “Hence, if there is no market or capitalistic value for parks, then why have them at all.”
This is my point. If people don’t value parks enough to pay for them as they use them (or let private owners profit in ways that I described above, or in other ways), then we’re faced with the situation we have today: First the government taxes everyone. Then politicians, bureaucrats, and a small group of enthusiasts decide how much recreation the people should have, and where and in what form.
I ask you: could anything be more extreme — not to mention counterproductive — than this?