Washington, DC officially opened its first meditation garden earlier this week. This “world class recreation amenity,” in the words of DC Council member Brandon Todd, is meant to be a quiet place for meditation, introspection, and yoga on Monday mornings.
While “world class” is a stretch, this garden is a textbook example of an amenity, a feature of a neighborhood that improves quality of life (and usually property values) for residents. But amenities aren’t always green. Public transportation, churches, and schools, in addition to “green spaces” all fall under the banner of “environmental” or “locational” amenities.
Locational amenities are normal goods. As the income of a consumer increases, they will demand more of them. If my income increases, I might decide to move to a nicer neighborhood in the same way I might to choose to get a bigger apartment, nicer car, or start eating out more.
But in urban planning, the causal arrow is often reversed. Instead of consumers getting wealthier and consuming more of these amenities by moving closer to them, folks who own land in these neighborhoods lobby to bring more amenities.
Tenants may also want amenities to come to their neighborhoods, but for them the relationship is more complicated. My quality of life may improve if there’s a new dog park in my neighborhood, but my rent will also go up. When the rent increases to the point it prices out lower-income residents, the neighborhood begins to “gentrify.”
(Note: All else being equal, pricing out lower-income residents is bad, but the anti-development bugaboo “gentrification” is a far more complicated phenomenon that is outside the scope of this post.)
Unfortunately, building more housing is wrongly painted as a threat to these amenities. Writing in response to the Village Voice’s concern that building more housing would require paving over Central Park, Ed Glaeser points out the absurdity of this position:
“[B]uilding high-rises in dense neighborhoods means that you don’t have to build in green areas, whether they’re urban parks or undeveloped areas far from the city. In fact, a true preservationist should realize that building up in one area reduces the pressure to take down other buildings. Once the landmarks commission decides that a building can be knocked down—as was the case in the Battle of Carnegie Hill—it should logically demand that its replacement be as tall as possible.”
It’s worth pointing out the irony of the pro-amenity but anti-development position. Generally, those pushing for the creation of new green spaces are the same as those who oppose new housing development (often called “not in my backyard-ers” or NIMBYs). From a realpolitik perspective, their strategy is internally consistent–oppose new housing developments because it would reduce the rents (both literal and economic) on property, but support amenities because it increases them.
So NIMBYs do want some things in their backyard, just not more room for other folks to live there.
This isn’t to bash dog parks or meditation gardens per se. Better land-use and zoning regulations go hand in hand with environmental amenities. When neighborhoods upzone, living space grows up rather than out so there is more room for parks, gardens, and other amenities.