What is research good for?

Lately, I have been digging into parts of my research that have to do with fees for entry: that is, a city (in this case New York) charging the public to use certain spaces. This isn’t entirely uncommon in a lot of places — leagues rent ball fields, people rent time on a tennis court, and people pay admission to get into public swimming pools.

Why is this such a big deal? Because most public space, most of the time, is free to enter.

So thinking about fees is useful because, in social science research, we often find an exception (or something that people find exceptional), and we dig in to see what we can find out. In this case: what can I find out about how public space operates in cities by examining the times that public space is used to generate revenue ? Who do policies like this include and exclude? For whom is it a hardship? What sort of rationale goes into justifying this fee to residents of the city?

I find this topic incredibly important, but—like a lot of research into the everyday workings of making a city run—also a little banal. Furthermore, I am currently  investigating the *history* of the fee for swimming, from about 1870 to about 1980. That’s right: I dig through archival sources in order to understand, for instance, the choice to charge adults 25 cents and children 10 cents to get into a public swimming pool in the 1930s.

And, like all researchers, there are days when I think what if this isn’t important? or what if no one cares?

And then this article popped up yesterday in the Guardian about a company called ‘Go Ape’ that has restored some playgrounds in London for everyone to use, by charging a rather high fee for some people to go on its high-in-the-air obstacle course. To some, this is a fine logic: everyone gets a nice park and a playground, and those that can pay get something cooler. It’s just the market at work. But what I find in my research is that this kind of logic is self-reinforcing, and sends other public places scrambling for similar revenue streams. As the article notes:

“A report by the fund last year estimated that 45% of local authorities are considering either selling parks and green spaces or transferring their management. More recent research suggests this is most likely to affect smaller green spaces, especially those in metropolitan areas.”

Now, this partially has to do with how parks in England are organized and funded. New York City is not allowed to sell off its parks to developers whole cloth, but they certainly can move management to private organizations and this happens all the time.

And while some neighborhoods (like those around Central Park) can afford to support a private conservancy to fund operations, the majority cannot. In fact, the 2014 city-wide “Community Parks Initiative” is slated to spend $130 million on 35 parks in the outer boroughs that haven’t been rehabbed in years. And while that may sound like a lot of money, consider that these 35 parks were chosen from a list of 215 that urgently need the help. The neighborhoods around these parks are not able to raise their own funds, but now there is a logic floating around that perhaps they should.

So back to history:

When the pools opened in the summer of 1936, Parks charged a fee of 10¢ for children and 20¢ for adults. This was the first time fees would be charged for use of public spaces and the idea was met with resistance from the start.  At the opening ceremony for Hamilton-Fish pool on the Lower East Side, Mayor LaGuardia tried to appease patrons, who were protesting loudly, stating, “This is all new to New York and all experimental… After the experience of this Summer we will know just how to arrange things next year” (“East Side Cheers,” NY Times, June 25, 1936).

Of course, this wasn’t experimental. It ushered in a whole era of fee-charging in order to balance city budgets for a number of decades. The Parks department also introduced a free period, but it was only for children, and only during particular hours — not the hottest hours of the day. While (almost) everyone got to use the pool in some capacity, the fee structure created a two-tiered system, indicating to the poorest children that the public space was not entirely theirs to use.

What effect does this low-grade exclusion have on children for the rest of their lives? To what extent do they believe the city is theirs, just as much as the children of parents who can pay?

And as I read about the new private Go Ape tree-top obstacle course, while it sounds like a lot of fun, I can’t help but think haven’t we been here before?


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