Thursday, April 6, 2006

Privately sponsored public parks

   Should corporate funding help pay for our public parks?  In an interesting segment yesterday on the radio show Marketplace, corporate officials defended the practice of having “sponsored” public spaces, such as Manhattan’s Bryant Park and the Central Park ice rink, as a way of bringing money and efficient maintenance to beleaguered municipal areas.  (Does anyone remember the hideous Bryant Park of the ‘70s?)  On the other side, public advocates complained about slapping corporate logos and giving partial corporate control over spaces that are supposed to be for everyone.  One critic was annoyed that corporate sponsors are sometimes given the power to close a park for private events.   
   I think that governments should avoid specters such as a “Flush-O-Matic Co. Geyser at Yellowstone National Park” (I avoid a Viagra joke …) or “Westinghouse Gettysburg Battlefield,” both because of the potential for conflicts of interest and because some places truly should be sacrosanct.  And the immersion in advertising of many of our public transportation systems – ad-wrapped buses and moving commercials in the subway – is an unfair assault on the senses of those who are trying to enjoy (or at least survive) a rare “public” experience.  In an ideal world, of course, parks would be fully funded and supported by the taxpayers.  But when this fails, however, more subtle and hands-off forms of sponsorship seem relatively innocuous to me, especially in a culture in which few Americans experience life in any form of public space on a day-to-day basis (except roads, of course).
   Here’s a final thought.  The radio segment reported that surrounding businesses help pay for the upkeep of Bryant Park.  Could such payments be coerced as a form of “tax” to make up for the benefits, both financial and psychic, provided by the city’s attractive greenspace, to the office buildings looming over it?  Could such a tax be justified as a form of “impact fee” to compensate for the government’s “giving” (the opposite of a “taking”) the park’s benefits?  On a more pedestrian (literally) level, shouldn’t nearby convenience stores and fast-food shops be taxed for the inevitable cleanup of litter on sidewalks and streets (akin to CERCLA), or even have to do the cleanups themselves, as a form of impact payment?

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