Friday, April 20, 2007

a tragedy of the commons, pdx style


A few photos from Jamison Square -- or at least that's what it's called for now. If the city gets its way, the name could change as soon as the city locates a well-heeled corporate sponsor. Seriously.

A bit of background: Last September, I wrote about the most recent flareup of the parks department's irrational hatred of Mt. Tabor Park. They wanted to hand over another chunk of the park to the right-wing religious school next door -- blechh -- but backed down due to public outrage.


...Or they seemed to have backed down. If this Bojack piece from last Friday is to be believed, they're back at it once again. If true, they've still got their hearts set on selling that land on Mt. Tabor, and now the park system's looking at corporate sponsorships and naming rights, too. This way, all the city's crown jewels get privatized, some symbolically, and others for real.

You'll also want to read these two posts at Amanda Fritz's blog about the situation. She's been attending public meetings -- quite poorly attended ones -- trying to give input and mitigate the damage. On one hand I feel kind of bad about sitting back and criticizing while others are participating, but I'm also not real big on involving myself in a process when I disagree with the fundamental premise of that process. I'm not interested in mitigation. I'm interested in them abandoning the idea entirely, period.

spring, jamison square

You wouldn't expect the local parks department to be a hotbed of secret backroom deals and such, but it seems that's what we've got these days. You really don't want your parks department run by people whose eyes light up when they realize they're sitting on a big pile of prime real estate, and see their job as finding ways to "monetize" this asset. I mean, I don't know for a fact that's their real motive. I don't know for a fact precisely what they're up to, but I know it doesn't smell right.

Sure, renaming a park after some big corporation isn't as bad as actually selling the land off. You can try to be pragmatic about it and say that a little symbolism is no big deal when there's cash to be had. And sure, the parks department has complained for years, probably decades, about chronic budgetary problems, deferred maintenance, and all that, basically advertising themselves as an easy mark for the corporate-logos-everywhere crowd. Here's the current draft naming/renaming policy, and sponsorship policy, along with a related doc on signage & memorials at Mt. Tabor.

fountain, jamison square

The last bit is important, unfortunately. There's a current proposal to erect a monument in the park to honor a recently deceased local World War I veteran. The proposal seems well-intentioned, although there's no shortage of local war memorials already. Unfortunately I think the proposal's being used as a Trojan horse to get the other changes through. If you have to tweak city policy anyway to make the monument possible, why not change a few more words here and there, while you're at it? You know, just to be sure the city's policy on creating monuments, naming things, accepting sponsorships, etc., is consistent and all.

And next thing you know, your neighborhood park has a huge Dasani logo at each entrance, and if they catch you drinking Aquafina there, they taser the snot out of you. Ok, maybe they don't taser you, but they'll probably confiscate it, for violating the terms of their sponsorship agreement. And suddenly the public commons are no longer really public, or held in common. Instead what you've got is a giant billboard, and taxpayers still have to foot the bill to cut the grass.

There's also a practical problem with the proposal: The parks that are likely to attract sponsorships are the prominent ones that already attract the lion's share of the parks budget. Jamison Square is absolutely guaranteed to attract a sponsor, so it'd be named after some high-end national retailer, ad agency, or web design outfit. More obscure locales like, say, Kelly Butte will no doubt remain unsponsored. In an ideal world, sponsorships of the "crown jewels" would free up taxpayer cash to be spent elsewhere, but I just don't see that happening.

I'm not saying it's impossible to have a beneficial "sponsorship" arrangement. It's just that when it's done right, it's not very lucrative for the city. Consider Portland's Peace Memorial Park, near the east end of the Steel Bridge, not far from Memorial Coliseum:


(More (and better) photos here.)

A local peace group adopted a chunk of neglected PDOT land and they built a large peace symbol there (now located in the big circle in the middle of this Google map), and the park's located so you get a nice vista of the peace symbol with downtown in the background. Which is great, IMHO. The city couldn't have done this on its own, but it's always willing to accept volunteer labor. I mean, I'm sure it didn't hurt that the peace symbol coincides with the city's (and my) ideological biases; if some creepy suburban megachurch had wanted to build a huge gold equestrian statue of Dubya in Crusader garb, putting unbelievers to the sword, I'm sure they'd have gotten a chillier reception. Not overtly, because that's not the Portland way, but suddenly there'd have been all sorts of complicated forms to complete, and fees to pay, and public hearings to attend, and on, and on. The iron law of bureaucracy is that a bureaucracy can outwait anyone, yes, even a church. Sooner or later, the fundies would give up and build their statue out in Clackamas somewhere, instead.

The problem with the Peace Memorial Park, and peace in general, is that there's no money in it. I would personally award the Nobel Peace Prize (if the King of Sweden lets me) to whoever figures how to make money by not killing people.... But I digress. The main point here is that the sponsorship is not a one-time infusion of cash in exchange for naming+billboard rights, it's an ongoing commitment of volunteer labor to maintain a piece of land the city had completely forgotten about. And there isn't even a sign there to tell you who sponsored the place, or why they did it, or where their nearest store is. If we're really going to do park sponsorships, that's how it ought to work.

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