Violence at New York's McCarren Park Pool has some suggesting all urban resources fall prey to the tragedy of the commons. Here's why this thinking is flawed.

Maybe the backlash was inevitable. There was a lot of hype about the reopening of McCarren Park Pool in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, after 28 years. This was supposed to be part of the city’s success story – a recreational spot that had been shut down because of violence a generation ago, reborn in the light of a new civic hope. Cue the trumpets.

Then, when the swimming season got underway at the painstakingly refurbished venue on June 28, a couple of violent incidents broke the script. One day, rowdy teenagers pushed lifeguards who told them to stop doing back flips. Another day, a cop got punched in the face. Some people had stuff stolen from their lockers.

Once the news hit the web, local reports were quick with the snark. “Does this get filed under ‘Why we can't have nice things’?” asked Gothamist, invoking a meme that actually predates web-based memes. Within a couple of days, the New York Observer headlined their coverage by using the phrase as a statement: "This is why we can’t have nice things."

Pundits and blog commenters blamed residents of the local housing projects. They blamed hipsters. They blamed the clash between project dwellers and hipsters. They blamed gentrification, and they blamed poverty. They blamed history – after all, the pool had been closed for all those years precisely because it local residents saw it as a magnet for fights, and had fought the city’s efforts to reopen it. They blamed race. Some blamed the pool’s policy of free admission, saying that if you charged people to enter, maybe the problems would go away.

A model of McCarren Park, courtesy: New York City Parks Department

Really what people were blaming was the city itself, with its mixing of cultures and ethnic groups and income levels. If you jam all that stuff together, the doubters say, you can’t have nice things.

That’s nonsense.

We can have nice things. We do have nice things. Cities all over the world have nice things, and more of them all the time, because of people who are willing to do the hard work it takes to make things nice. Yes, there is always chaos. In hot weather, people are more likely to fight. That doesn’t mean we should give up.

There’s a fancy-pants name for “why we can’t have nice things.” It’s called “the tragedy of the commons.” The concept was advanced in 1968 by a professor of biology at the University of California named Garrett Hardin. Here’s an excerpt of his explanation, originally published in Science magazine:

Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

[T]he rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another... But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit--in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

Hardin posited that the commons in all its forms would have to be abandoned as the human population grew – that national parks, for instance, would have to be privatized or open only by lottery, in order to avoid their calamitous destruction.

He also advocated ending the "commons in breeding" because "[f]reedom to breed will bring ruin to all." Despite that somewhat extreme stance, his work became enormously popular and influential, and was used to justify the position that top-down solutions are required to keep an unruly populace in check.

Here’s the thing, though: Sometimes the commons is no tragedy. Sometimes it works.

Don’t take my word for it. Political economist Elinor Ostrom, who died last month at the age of 78, spent her career studying the way that people use common resources like fisheries and land and water, and won a Nobel Prize for economics doing it. She and her husband, Vincent, went out into the world and conducted fieldwork (a suspect pursuit in the field of economics, where she was an outsider to begin with). They discovered that in many cases, people manage these matters through a nuanced and locally specific system of rules, peer oversight, tradition, and cooperation.

She emphasized in interviews that such arrangements are not a relic of the past, but are very much in effect today, citing co-op apartments and the Internet as two relevant contemporary examples.

Ostrom’s abiding interest was in trying to figure out why some commons situations are successful and others aren’t. If you care about cities at all, it’s likely a question you ask yourself all the time.

The other day I was down at the beach in Coney Island. The tragedy of the commons was all around me – evidence aplenty that we cannot, in fact, have nice things. People were tossing their trash right next to their beach towels, and as the tide came in, the garbage was swept into the water, where it bobbed alongside all the little kids and old folks and parents and teenagers who were splashing in the waves, finding relief from the brutal heat.

No one besides me seemed to care about the trash. Everyone else appeared quite happy with the way things were. I picked up what I could, clearing a little patch of beach around myself and my son, because I really couldn’t bear to see the detritus get sucked under into the only Atlantic we have. I felt like a chump. That is part of the tragedy of the commons – that stinging sense of embarrassment at trying to make something nice when no one else gives a damn.

I’m familiar with this feeling from a lifetime of living in cities and being a total civic nerd. Fortunately, it doesn’t really bother me any longer.

Halfway up the beach was a corral full of garbage cans, with signs telling people not to litter, admonishing visitors to keep “your beach” clean. I dumped a couple of bags of garbage in those cans, wondering if and how more people could be convinced to do the same, how the sweating masses of New York could come to feel that “their beach,” and their ocean, should not be filled with junk.

I’ll confess: It wasn’t a high point for my relationship with my hometown.

But over the last generation, the city has shown that it can fix itself. Private citizens, government, and businesses have worked together to make change happen. Central Park used to be just as filthy as that patch of sand in Coney Island. Bryant Park was filled with drug dealers. Along the Hudson and East rivers, there were no waterfront parks, just rotting piers that were home to prostitutes and drug dealers.

Now there are miles and miles of riverfront where you can cycle, run, or just relax. Tree-shaded lawns. Subway interiors that aren’t one big black scrawl of graffiti. Streets that are not covered with dog poop. (If you didn’t live in New York before the pooper-scooper law, you can’t know how bad it once was.)

Everyone said back then that the city couldn’t change – that we couldn’t have nice things. That the movable tables and chairs in Bryant Park would be stolen. That the jogging paths of Central Park would always be a hunting ground for human predators. That the trains would always be stifling and broken.

Yet now we take many of these nice things for granted. As of last month we have one more nice thing: McCarren Park Pool. Which is destined to be very nice indeed, if people work together.

Tens of thousands of New Yorkers have swum there in the two weeks since it reopened, and for almost all of them, the experience has been what it was meant to be: cool, refreshing, free of incident, and free of charge.

We can keep moving in this direction. The city can boost security and provide better training for lifeguards. The pool attendants can send the message, as they do at many other city pools, that shenanigans will not be tolerated. The Parks Department can provide more Port-a-Potties for people waiting in line. The community can reinforce the message that this is a decent place that should be respected.

As for Coney Island? Well, there’s a lot of money sloshing around out there right now, alongside all that garbage. Let’s put some of the cash to use maintaining the commons. Local businesses, including the massive Thor Equities, can form a business improvement district, as many parts of town have done, and pitch in to keep the precious beach clean.

Ten years from now, that piece of the Coney Island shoreline could be a place where if you throw your garbage into the water, someone will give you the stinkeye, and you’ll rush to pick it up.

Because, you know. That kind of thing just isn’t nice.

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