The economics of good public spaces.

Posted: January 27, 2010 in Uncategorized
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At a recent city council meeting, a retiring police officer being honored by the city for his years of service took the opportunity to make his pitch (very directly) for more financial support for the local police department.  In doing so, he implied that the city should not be spending money on pretty streets (and other unimportant things) until the police department is properly funded.  Without getting into the merits of his particular special interest, I’ll just say that it’s not unusual to hear the sentiment that money spent on beautification could be better spent elsewhere.  There are, after all, real needs throughout a typical city including funding for police protection, fire departments, street paving, water and sewer systems, senior citizen needs, facilities for youth, and on and on.

All are important.  All need money.  All must be taken care of.

But if you think you can put the upkeep of the appearance of a city on the back burner and ignore things like parks and other public spaces and still have a vibrant, growing city, you’re just wrong.  

That’s the challenge facing mayors and other civic leaders who really want the best for their cities.  They have to understand the importance of what is too often thought of as unimportant.

If you’re the least bit interested in improving your community, you’ve probably noticed the “create” groups springing up in city after city.  These groups are dedicated to revitalizing their communities by building a new economic model based on attracting so-called creative professionals, as espoused by “create” guru, Richard Florida.  One way to attract these professionals is by providing the amenities that these creatives desire – everything from coffee shops to art museums.  (For a good presentation of the concept, including local examples, go to Joseph Higginbotham’s post at higginbothamatlarge.blogspot.com).  Though not everyone buys into the “create” movement, it’s hard to argue that these amenities don’t attract visitors, who become shoppers, who become residents, who become home buyers, who become car buyers, and so on.  Of course not everyone who drinks a cup of coffee at Pullman Square will end up buying a house in Huntington, but if it weren’t for Pullman Square’s public space, my wife and I would never have stopped and bought a cup of coffee, or a cone of ice cream, or books from the bookstore, or fashions from the shops, or eaten at the restaurants. 

My years of working in community revitalization have taught me that the appearance of the city and the impression created by that appearance has much to do with whether a business will locate in one community or another.  Think a high-end furniture store will locate in a section of town that looks run down?  Or a bakery?  Or a law firm?  It’s all part of the total package.

Which is more important, helping businesses succeed or having a good police force?  At any given moment, one may be more important than the other.  But in the long run, they’re both important.  A city with no economic activity won’t have a police force for very long.  A city without a good police force will lose much of its business.  The hard part is for city leaders to find the right balance.

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