The trend of privatizing the public realm has been gaining momentum in recent years.
Parks are a prime target for fees generated by commercial activities, such as music festivals with tickets and corporate events. They also serve as venues for private gatherings like weddings. Personal event organizers are willing to pay top dollar if they can get a park with trees, rolling lawns, scenic views, and large open spaces.
What about the costs of such activities?
Private functions that can raise funds for upkeep without causing a significant loss in normal use are justified. It is all a matter of degree. There is definitely a case to limit private functions so that parks can continue to be perceived as essential public spaces and still be enjoyed in that way.
Parks should be open to all. Craig Siczak
More events more often
The number of events booked in Sydney’s Botanic Gardens in 2012-13 was more than 2000, which is over twice as many as in 2009-10.
The Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust (a NSW government agency that manages Gardens and Domain) has predicted an increase in large and corporate events in these spaces, from 60 last year up to 100 per year over the next five.
The City of Sydney has granted the extension of approval for such events. City councillors have requested that the number of private events held in these spaces be limited.
The NSW government is promoting private events to reduce general spending in order to fund the escalating health costs. This will result in a reduction of grants to operate and maintain the Gardens and Domain.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported last weekend that the trust was increasingly dependent on its revenues to cover its operating costs because the government contributed a smaller portion of its income. The government funding for 2013-14 will be reduced by 6%.
Same story, different city
Perth has a similar authority that looks after both the Gardens and Kings Park. In 2011-12, the Authority received 60% from the government and 7% through fees and user charges for events and functions. The Sydney Trust received 59% of revenue from the State and 12% through payments in the same year.
The Botanic Gardens and Domain already receive nearly twice the revenue in user fees of their Perth counterparts. And that’s before even the large projected increase in major events.
The Rolling Stones played in London’s Hyde Park this July. EPA/Anthony Devlin/PA Wire
In London, there is a backlash against the decision made earlier this year that charged non-profit sports clubs to use the football pitch area of Hyde Park. This private company says that it’s necessary to raise money to maintain and improve this space.
In New York, however, the majority of funds required to maintain Central Park is raised through public contributions. This situation would not be acceptable or possible in Australia.
Sydney could raise enough revenue from private functions to upgrade the parks above the state-funded level and improve the experience of park users. There is no indication this will happen.
Use of public goods by private individuals
The public sector cannot provide services that are needed by society (such as open space and its availability). This is why parks like the Botanic Garden and Domain are considered “public goods.”
If councils or states wish, public parks could be gated, and the users could be forced to pay, thus generating revenue. This would go against the public’s perception of public parks.
The Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney. Nagarjun Kandukuru
In terms of private functions, the critical question is whether park users, as consumers of a public good, are disadvantaged by the use exclusions that are required for private functions.
It’s easy to imagine how the ordinary use of a park could be affected. The question would be, in economic terms, Would the revenue from private functions cover the additional wear and tear of the gardens as well as the loss of enjoyment for ordinary users? Quantifying the loss of pleasure is difficult.
The City of Sydney Council does not have a strong claim to legitimacy when it tries to combat the trust by calling for new limitations on private events at The Domain and Botanic Garden.
The Botanic Gardens and Domain, which are both state assets, provide services for city workers and residents as well as tourists and Sydney’s wider population. The council does not have to provide the services and can earn extra rates because the land values are higher in the vicinity of the parks.
The City of Sydney Council is now receiving open space benefits from these NSW Government assets that would have normally had to be paid by other councils.
Sydney, A concert at the Domain. Francisco Martins
What should governments provide today, and how should they be paid for?
The Botanic Garden and the Domain are major parks that provide many benefits to society, including free recreation and health benefits. They also have a beautiful civic appearance and a positive microclimate effect. These benefits do not come from the private sector.
When weighing the benefits of renting out parks against their cost, the government must take these into consideration.