28 January 2019

Hyper-manicured public spaces

Colin Tosh, lecturer in ecology, writes about hyper-manicured public spaces in the UK. He gives examples:
The wildlife value of a particular tree species in cities is often disregarded when a decision is made to remove it. In parks, plant species which are exotic to the UK such as the New Zealand cabbage tree (Cordyline australis) are intentionally planted because no native wildlife can use them, so they are low maintenance. ...

Leaves are swept up immediately before their nutrients can return to the ground and the insects that lay their eggs on them are doomed to certain death. Road verges are cut back to the bone several times each year and the clippings are left lying, minimising their use as a habitat for wild flowers. How hyper-manicured public spaces hurt urban wildlife, Colin Tosh, 'The Conversation', 22 January
Part of the reason is that the wishes of local people conflict with those of the bodies charged with maintaining these spaces:
It doesn’t help that grounds management is often subcontracted to private firms in the UK. In these cases, grounds management is more likely to be insensitive to expert advice as the function is out of the hands of the democratically controlled body and with a private company that needn’t care what the public thinks.
We see this all the time: corporate bodies have goals that conflict with those of ordinary people. Often their goals are short term and narrow. Qualities important to the public fall through the cracks: in this instance, the local environment; more generally the global environment, social cohesion and other things that make up the Commons.

Social Policy Bonds could work quite well in targeting broad, long-term goals, such as the dealing with climate change or its impacts. For local goals, such as the well-being of public spaces, the remedy would appear to be, as indicated by Mr Tosh, ensuring that the bodies responsible are accountable to the people directly affected. Both approaches entail taking ordinary people's long-term goals seriously, and giving a lower priority to the short-term goals of corporate bodies, including government agencies.

Interestingly, even on their own terms, efforts made to satisfy the short-term accountancy-type goals local authorities, fail:
The irony of it all is that measures to improve public areas for wildlife essentially involve less effort overall. All that really needs to be done is to allow public areas to be a little more unkempt, because unkempt areas are what nature likes.
 Again, there is a larger-scale parallel: 
If shareholder primacy theory is correct [ie, that the over-arching goal of corporate managers is to maximise shareholder value] corporations that adopt such strategies should do better and produce higher investor returns than corporations that don’t. Does the evidence confirm this? Surprisingly, the answer to this question is “no.” The Shareholder Value Myth, Lynne A Stout, 'European Financial Review', 30 April 2013
And the reasons are similar and include: the differing goals of the many stakeholders, not all of which are readily quantifiable; and, very often, conflict between long- and short-term objectives. Corporations, of course, are supposed to be in competition with each other, so should be penalised if they fail to meet consumer demand. But, as Jonathan Tepper tells us, competition is now an ever more rare feature of today's mixed economy. A Social Policy Bond approach might be the answer, whereby investors form a new sort of organisation and enrich themselves if and only if they help achieve the long-term goals of society as a whole.

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