A new speaker series at U of T's Munk School examines the future of our libraries and parks.
At the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs on Tuesday afternoon, guest speakers Siobhan Reardon and Jamie Torres Springer spoke to a roomful of people about the value of public space, and how public amenities can serve as drivers of economic growth.
The talk was the first in a three-part series bearing the perfectly self-explanatory title, “Spaces: Managing and Funding Libraries and Parks in Tough Economic Times.”
“I think everybody loves loves loves the concept of a public library,” Reardon told Torontoist in a quiet moment before the event. Since September of 2008, she has been president and director of Philadelphia’s public library system: the Free Library of Philadelphia. Most Torontonians should be able to relate when Reardon says funding for the Free Library has dried up considerably over these last few recessionary years, but not because of a lack of popularity: “It’s just, what’s left in the bucket after you take care of police, fire, all that kind of stuff?”
So Reardon and her staff began a study with the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania to determine the economic value of Philadelphia’s libraries. What they discovered was that, in a single year, nearly 1,000 people found jobs using library resources, resulting in some $30 million worth of earned income, and $1.2 million in generated taxes. In that same year, the library helped more than 24,000 Philadelphians learn to read, in a city where Reardon says that, astonishingly, almost 50 per cent of the working-age population is functionally illiterate.
“We really do play a significant role in the economic recovery of the city,” Reardon says. “The tax dollars that support [the library], the municipal dollars that support it, are a terrific investment.”
The study also showed—seemingly proving Reardon’s assertion about libraries’ popularity—that homes within 400 metres of a library sold for nearly $10,000 more, on average, than homes that were further away.
This sort of property value increment also happens in proximity to parks. But Springer—a partner with economic and real estate development consultants HR&A—contends that what we expect from parks has changed over time.
“Looking way back, the city park was the place that people would go to for respite from a much dirtier city,” he says. Here he borrows a line from Central Park Conservancy founder Betsy Barlow Rogers: “As the city becomes more park-like, the park becomes more city-like.”
Using two recent urban reclamation projects in New York City—Brooklyn Bridge Park and the High Line—as examples, Springer describes a newer imagining of ideal public space. “Now we look to parks for entertainment, places to eat, places to go for a drink, places to do shopping,” he says.
In order to build and maintain these so-called “signature” parks, and to support programs and amenities there, Springer says government funding needs to be supplemented by some combination of commercial income, real estate development, the sale of naming rights and, sometimes, user fees.
“We’re looking more to parks as sources of economic value,” he says. “Parks are getting better and better at monetizing some of that value.”
Perhaps it was partly the incongruity of hearing public parks discussed in the emotionally detached language of the economist, but as the floor of Tuesday’s event was given over to those in attendance to pose questions of the speakers, Springer found himself on the defensive.
“The local park, where you can go and walk your dog … where you can go and sit, there’s tremendous need for those [too]” he told one woman who expressed concern over the suggestion that simple green parks are becoming less important. “Diversifying in some of these wonderful [signature] parks—which, by the way, also have great lawns, they all have pastoral uses as well—in some way it engages people who aren’t otherwise using parks,” Springer said.
Ultimately, libraries and parks only have so much in common. If this first installment in the discussion series—which is the work of the Munk School’s Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance—felt somewhat scattered, this shouldn’t be a problem at either of the remaining two sessions. Libraries in the digital age will be the focus on March 1, while park financing and management gets a closer look on April 10.