As I went walking I saw a sign there And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
October 17, 2011 8:02 AM   Subscribe

Why do public parks have closing times? How are those closing times justified to serve the public good?

This question was inspired by the arrests happening of the Occupiers across the country getting arrested for being in parks at night.
posted by garlic to Law & Government (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Former teenager here. Lots of shady stuff happens in parks at night.
posted by roger ackroyd at 8:05 AM on October 17, 2011 [13 favorites]

Public safety. Also probably as a means of deterring homeless squatting.
posted by litnerd at 8:09 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Deterring protesters sleeping in a park overnight is probably way down the list of why parks close behind much more pragmatic reasons.

A lot of things which would happen in a park in the wee hours of the night probably involves trash being thrown around and/or vandalism to the park which would then have to be cleaned up. As well there is the issue of public safety which Litnerd mentioned.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 8:13 AM on October 17, 2011

Public doesn't mean unfettered access. It never did and never will. The people in charge of something have a responsibility to operate a park in the best way to ensure it's able to be enjoyed in a safe manner. Closing a park at night is usually due to safety reasons like to deter crime or to keep people from getting injured in the dark.

Zuccotti Park is not actually owned by the public. While it's publicly accesssible, it's owned by a company who have promised to keep it publicly accessible, but who most certainly have liability issues to address.
posted by inturnaround at 8:14 AM on October 17, 2011

Closing times give cops an excuse for selective enforcement. I mean, I used to live across the street from a city park, and saw lots of shady stuff going on there at night. The closing time allowed the police to roust anyone, even if there was no clear evidence of wrong-doing. Of course, if a nice-looking lady were walking her dog, she'd be left alone.

Oh, are you looking for constitutionally-justified reasons for closing parks at night? That's a bit more difficult. Something-something public safety.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:14 AM on October 17, 2011 [8 favorites]

Yeah, safety. Back before the Giuliani administration, going to Central Park at night was pretty much shorthand for suicide. It was hyperbole, but not by much. Other than assault, public parks in dense, urban areas are considerably more safe from police presence than the city streets. So, the homeless can sleep, dealers can sell, prositutes can hook and all other things a city government finds undesirable can go on with considerably less eyes upon them to call the cops.
posted by griphus at 8:16 AM on October 17, 2011

Public safety, and also allied to that a way of saying 'not our responsibility outwith these times'. An example of this is a graveyard near me which has opening times and a gate which is locked outside these times - but the walls around it are only about three feet high. So there the closing times are really a way of saying "if you choose to go into this unlit place full of potential obstacles to fall over and break your neck, don't go blaming us".
posted by Coobeastie at 8:16 AM on October 17, 2011

Best answer: This is not an opinion on the OWS, just an answer to your question.

Anything that is nominally public has to be operated by public staff. This includes keeping the place safe, keeping the trash cans emptied, maintaining the area, that sort of thing. The same is true in, for example, the public library. It is a publicly owned facility but it is run by people for the public. For various reasons [mainly related to staffing and costs] the purposes of the public institution have to be balanced with other concerns of the public. And public institutions have missions and/or purposes. These are fluid over time and social mores and other things dictate exactly what "public" means in these cases. So public parks in the US are generally thought of to serve recreational purposes of certain types [i.e. not camping] and rules are created and enforced around this. Here's an article about open/closing hours in Golden Gate Park, predating OWS.

The whole tragedy of the commons thing sort of talks about this idea. So there's the idea that public space is a limited resource and if some people are, for example, living in that park, that impinges on other people's access to that park as a recreational location. The library, for example, may need to be closed to be cleaned, or may be closed because it costs a lot of money to keep it at 72 degrees 24/7 or because the number of people who might go to the library at 2 am isn't worth the additional cost of keeping the building staffed and safe at that hour. Part of being a public trustee is balancing all the needs of the public in addition to maintaining whatever the public resource is.

That said, this is also an easily-bent mandate that can involve supporting the public you like to the exclusion of the public you don't like. There are many debates about how far public libraries should go to accommodate or not accommodate homeless populations, for example. it's very easy to have policies in place that very subtly discourage or inhibit homeless folks [rules about needing a fixed address to get a card, rules about how many bags you can bring with you, hygeine rules] and people make various arguments about how homeless people are or are not the public and how much their needs need to balance the needs and desires of other patrons.

In short: the values, desires and needs of the public sometimes conflict and so public officials have to find ways to balance these along with insufficient funding and other imperfect systems. Having closing hours in parks is nominally a way to do this.
posted by jessamyn at 8:17 AM on October 17, 2011 [18 favorites]

There is a county owned/managed soccer park next to my house. Due to the outrageously high cost of housing in Northern Virginia coupled with the availability of jobs in this area, I have zero doubt that if people were allowed to stay there overnight it would turn into a camp within a week or so. None of it would have anything to do with the OWS protests.
posted by smoothvirus at 8:30 AM on October 17, 2011

some of the parks around here (Dublin) have different opening and closing times for different months of the year. So a park is open earlier and later in summer month and the opposite for winter. I presume this is to do with the differing daylight hours. Meaning the parks are closed when it's dark.

Also, there's generally no lighting in these parks and so not as safe. Intended and un-intended harm.
posted by MarvinJ at 8:41 AM on October 17, 2011

Best answer: As someone who serves voluntarily on committee run by a non-profit to monitor and aid NYC parks management, I have some decent insight into this. First and foremost, as stated above, it is an issue of safety and sanitation. Understand that the parks department generally has one to two maintenance staff for an entire district. In my district, this is an area of approximately 10 square urban miles that includes probably 30 parks both large and small. There is no way that 2 people can handle the trash pick up, general maintenance, safety oversight, etc that is required to keep that many parks useable every day. Add to that the fact that there are only 2 Parks Police Officers for the same district and you can see that keeping the parks 'open' all night all the time would result in an already overwhelming situation becoming worse.

Many parks that technically 'close' are not fenced in or otherwise barricaded at closing hours. These parks are a good illustration of what goes on 'off-hours'. The number of innocuous homeless who call them home is already depressing, but when you add in the vagrant alcoholics, drunken teenagers, mentally ill persons, and halfway house denizens that end up at these parks at night, you can see that leaving every single park open 24/7 would quickly and permanently damage the usability of all parks for most of the community.

Also, the number of small parks that end up being dog toilets when not locked at night is astonishing.
posted by spicynuts at 9:10 AM on October 17, 2011

Best answer: I have worked in Park maintenance for the last 14 years, for municipalities ranging in population size from 300,000 to 40,000.

Jessamyn is spot-on.

I've only seen a handful of parks which have gates that are closed at closing time, but everywhere I've worked has had a park curfew, usually between 11:00 PM and 1:00 AM. Although I've never seen the policy explained in detail, I empirically know that closing the parks helps prevent vandalism, litter, and other nefarious activity in an area that should be a wholesome haven for recreation.

MrMoonPie is probably right about selective enforcement to some degree, though. I know that the Police Departments I've worked with on enforcement issues like to have clear signage up which delineates what is and isn't allowed, including curfews. If there's no sign, they're not likely to enforce the ordinance. (this is something that drives me crazy, by the way).

As a general rule, we provide and program parks to provide recreation opportunity to the citizens. While a lot of the appeal of a park is open space in which you can do whatever you need to do to enjoy your leisure time, we parks professionals have an idea of what types of activities we want to encourage and foster. This idea is often largely formed by input from the public. That being said, overnight activities are, by and large, not a normal part of the equation. Since we have a problem with things like littering and vandalism even when the park is open, and in broad daylight, it's makes sense on some level to decide that we're not really serving our population by keeping the park open at night, when nefarious stuff seems more likely to happen.

Usually, curfew violations I hear about are nothing more than the PD making contact with someone in the park after hours, telling that person to clear out, and the person does so. But the fact that the park is closed gives the officer cause to make that contact in the first place, even if they're not doing anything else wrong. If they are, then that can be dealt with.

There are exceptions to the rule, though. Just this weekend my family and I camped out in a City Park as past of a camping program that the Parks and Rec department programmed. The curfew was lifted for registered participants for that night.

I think that most Parks and Rec departments would be willing to listen if there were enough community support for opening parks to overnight use. It would require careful administration and management, and possibly a budgetary cost, though.
posted by Shohn at 11:54 AM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Park operation and maintenance isn't cost-free, and government resources are not unlimited. If the public wanted to have its parks open around-the-clock, the public would have to be willing to pay the taxes that this would require. Clearly that does not describe our current reality. On the contrary, public parks are in real danger of outright closure and abandonment.
posted by Corvid at 2:03 PM on October 17, 2011

As a possibly interesting note: parks in Australia are almost all simply open access, 24 hours. The Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne closes at night, but that's the only example I'm aware of - I was surprised and a little bewildered when I got warned out of a local park while walking through at midnight, after moving to Seattle. The public toilets and other buildings within a park are sometimes closed overnight, but not the actual space. Obviously, we don't have the same level of homelessness, and other social differences exist that make it not a simple comparison, but it is evidence that the 'parks close overnight or they'd be destroyed' idea is not the way it has to be.
posted by jacalata at 6:20 PM on October 17, 2011

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