The Power of Parks and Museums
As many cities and communities face budget cuts, parks and other cultural gathering places often seem like unnecessary extravagances. For individuals recover from the economic downturn, going to the theater, a ballet or opera might also be far too pricey. The city of Detroit may even auction off its art museum’s treasures in order to cope with bankruptcy. But the arts and public places for recreation can redefine communities, socially, culturally and economically.
One example is High Line Park, created from out-of-use elevated train tracks in Manhattan and converted into a park which opened in 2009. The public can walk atop the former tracks, now covered with a platform and beautiful gardens. The park has dramatically changed the neighborhood around it from one of shuttered factories and dreary buildings to a place where developers have built numerous architecturally interesting condos, apartments, and office buildings.
The park draws many visitors, creating opportunities for small businesses like food truck owners and other vendors to sell their wares. A steady stream of pedestrians also improves the area’s safety; the area was formerly one where you most certainly would not go for a scenic walk. Revitalizing a part of town once devoted to manufacturing and shipping, the park creates a reason for other kinds of businesses to open, including a major hotel.
The park didn’t come cheap: the first phase of the conversion cost over $153 million in funds from the city, state, and federal government, as well as private fundraising (of $44 million so far). As you might imagine, the cost of creating parks—or maintaining existing ones—is extremely high. And although a park might seem like a luxury in tough times, there are significant benefits. Beyond improving property values and beautifying a community, a park adds new ways for the public to experience their community.
Likewise, museums and other forms of culture benefit communities. North Adams, Massachusetts, a former factory town struggling economically, saw its fortunes revived by converting an empty factory into Mass MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. It took a $45 million investment by the state to open the museum in 1999. (For more on the museum, see Sociology in Practice: Thinking About Culture).
Museums and other artistic institutions are draws for visitors, but also for potential residents who might be drawn to a community because of the cultural experiences it offers. Cultural amenities attract other creative residents. Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, argues that creative community members contribute to the quality of life where they live and can revitalize struggling neighborhoods. This has been happening in Detroit, ironically; the low cost of living has attracted artists just as the city's museum is facing the possibility of auctioning off its pieces.
When cultural amenities close, more than just an opera house or a theater goes away. You might not even like the opera, but aside from offering jobs to performers and producers, restaurants catering to attendees before or after shows lose business. Parking attendants working at lots serving patrons also lose their jobs. And communities that have a smaller range of cultural events are less appealing to educated and affluent potential residents who may enjoy having a variety of cultural experiences nearby. Many affluent and educated people are from larger cities and are accustomed to lots of choices of things to do, including enjoying dining experiences, performances, and lectures. Vibrant communities are both created and sustained through these cultural activities.
So even if you don’t like to walk in parks or see operas, if you live in a place with appealing open spaces and a mix of entertainment choices, you benefit. Your community creates more jobs and is more economically stable. A variety of educated and creative people are interested in living in the community, opening businesses like restaurants, galleries, and boutiques that draw customers, enriching your tax base. A stronger tax base means that schools have more funding, not to mention the cultural amenities to enrich education.
Communities are often safer when law-abiding people are outside in public spaces, bringing safety in numbers. Residents interact with each other while enjoying these activities, further enhancing a sense of connection with a community. Serving on boards and participating in fundraisers to support the arts and community amenities furthers this sense of commitment and connection to a community.
How else might parks and cultural amenities enrich their communities?