There is something insidious about fences. These man-made enclosures are a declaration of control; they create a hierarchical structure through limiting access, where there was once freedom. Jean-Jacques Rousseau explored the relationships of men in “Social Contract.” He found that fences engendered the notion of private property and led to the corruption of man’s essentially good nature,
Recently, a miles-long chain-link fence was erected around the wild northern portion of City Park, earmarked for development as a golf course by a closed decision-making process. There are many reasons why this golf course is a bad choice for the region: ecology, hydrology, financial sustainability, countervailing recreational trends — but I would like to highlight one particular aspect of the choice that is underappreciated: public access. Parks in contemporary urban life are the closest things we have to a shared resource. Like ‘commons’ of yore, they provide an undefined space for collective activity that has no equal, held in trust by the public, for the public. And by ‘public’ I do not mean strictly homo sapiens, but all flora and fauna.
Let’s pause for a moment and discuss the myth of the “tragedy of the commons.” This myth is frequently cited as the reason why collective assets are doomed to fail, because users want to maximize self-interest. The phrase, which stems from Garrett Hardin’s 1968 essay of the same name, has cast a long and ominous shadow upon attempts to preserve collective assets. Despite a total lack of historical evidence, this hypothesis has worked its way into the public imagination, providing opportunists with a powerful tool to advance an agenda of privatization. Ironically, the factual evidence shows that the commons were lost for precisely the opposite reason than what Hardin speculated.
Instead of commons being pillaged through neglectful shared ownership, the commons were systematically destroyed through a process of ‘takings’ by profiteers. Karl Polyani, in “The Great Transformation,” documents how the commons in England were subdivided through an expulsive process of removal by landholders who realized that they could monetize their royal claims through consolidation of grazing fields through forceful expulsion of sharecroppers.
Despite history, the polluted myth continues to hold popular imagination hostage, and it continues to deteriorate the bonds of public ownership.
A massive fence has circumscribed a benevolently neglected portion of the park, which in the years since Hurricane Katrina became an unexpected refuge. The diversity of native and migratory species that have claimed it as home in the past 10 years is incredible to behold. The ecosystem is restoring itself to a balance point where the bayous are actually healthy, supporting a range of species seldom seen within an urban environment. The diversity of human activities inspired by this unbounded common is similarly difficult to catalog. Meandering adaptations of Oscar Wilde plays, campfire shows, tree houses, Equinox ceremonies, voodoo rites, art installations, wildlife walks with school children, kite flying, urban farming, casual dog walks, treasure hunts, a place for self-reflection. It’s all there for us.
The gifts of a natural disaster are few to count, but the wilding of City Park’s former golf courses is definitely one of them. Amid the wreckage of Katrina, City Park’s golf courses took extensive damage, but it has bestowed us with a natural refuge in the heart of the city that is now a collective treasure.
The recent enclosure of this refuge was a shock to many. Park officials say it was all in the plans, and that we shouldn’t be surprised. Many of us didn’t know the value of this accidental treasure until access was abruptly revoked by a fence. People mobilized quickly, and the public outcry at the City Park Board of Directors meeting recently was vociferous. However, the Board’s reaction was vacuous, providing no response to comments or concerns.
How can this collective refuge be treated so arbitrarily? There must be an exploration of alternatives. A golf course is a massive taking of public land for the benefit of the few. Once built, there will be no freedom of access: the land will be reserved for one exclusive use, for a selective cohort of well-heeled individuals. You want to evaluate the “highest and best use” for this land? Surely there are more valuable metrics than economics. Access is a universal metric, use for all, arrived at by an inclusive decision-making process, and supported through shared stewardship.
Frankly, the Board’s decision to proceed with a nostalgic golf course makes it difficult to see how the City Park leadership is serving the best interests of New Orleanians. Access trumps dollars. Golf is a losing proposition. We demand a response.
Opponents of the golf course are holding a rally today at 4 p.m. More information is available through this Facebook page.