A student said to me the once “This Social Capital thing kind of confuses me. I understand why a hospital is Social Capital as it contributes to the production of a service and it’s owned by the government. But what about a park? I don’t think it’s Social Capital as a park, was not made and does not contribute to the production of anything”.
At first glance it may seem that he has a point, but when we look at it we have to realise that he was wrong.
Again, wee can start with a definition. What is Social Capital? Social Capital is anything that is man made and is used in the production of goods and services, which is owned by society in general.
Lets go to the last thing he said first, that it is “owned by the government”. Thats incorrect. The government can’t own anything. There are the stewards of what we as tax payers own. A minor distinction but important to keep in mind none the less.
Secondly, lets get to the main point of his misunderstanding. A park, unlike a hospital is not made and does not aid in the production of goods and services.
The main thing that needs to be kept in mind when talking about capital is that it is something that is man made and used in the production of goods and services. A hospital is something that is man made, it has been physically built, and is used in the production of medical services. It is not owned by the government as the government owns nothing in actuality, we as taxpayers own it. Therefore, a hospital is something that is manmade, that is used ion the production off goods and services and is owned by society in general. Easy to see that this is Social Capital.
What about a park? Well a park is something that has been man made. It has been cultivated and homesteaded. Trees have been manicured and flowers planted. As such, to some degree, it has been man made. After all, every building was built on some piece of land. It is used in the production of leisure services, people go there for walks and children can go there to use the playgrounds, and, in the case of Marley Park in Dublin, its run by the local County Council and as such is owned by society in general.
Now, if its as park on a private apartment block, then it is not Social Capital, as it is not owned by society in general. Even if the management company say that you don’t have to be resident to walk or play there, it’s still not Social Capital as it is not owned by society in general.
Another point of clarification that can usually follow after the above explanation is
“Ok, so even though the leisure services are free, it’s still producing something like walks, places to walk the dog, places to play football, places for children to go to a playground etc.
A really technical but important distinction applies here. The use of the park is not free. Society’s scarce resources, which have alternative uses, are used to maintain the park in the manner it is. The price of admission is zero, but resources are being used. People have to be paid to cut the grass. Petrol has to paid for the power the tractor. Weed killer has to be bought to maintain the flower beds etc.
Yes all of this costs money, but the true economic cost also understands that if we are to use these resources here, that means that there is less to use elsewhere. The true economic cost is not just the explicit costs of the money spent but also the implicit (or opportunity cost) of what else we could have been doing instead of the action taken. This also applies if it costs the government nothing. In the example of the private park in the apartment block, there is still a cost to that company too maintain the park the way it is.
In summation, a public park is social capital as it is man made and used in the production of leisure services and is owned by society in general.