Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Park Run and Common Pool Resources

As a tri-afflete I run. Or, I ran. I’ve currently got problems with my ITB at the moment, so I’m not running as much as I’d like to. Although from that Wikipedia article, I think I’ve worked out why (I’m a pigeon-toed cyclist). Anyway, among the running community in the UK the decision of the Stoke Gifford Parish Council to charge their local Park Run for use of a park has caused a bit of a furore – a petition has currently reached 20,000 signatures. From a governance perspective, I find this fascinating.

Let’s start up with what I don’t know about this particular case:
  •  It’s not clear from the reporting if there is an issue of conflict, with other users of the park regularly feeling they cannot use this particular park on a Saturday morning because it is over-run with runners (pun not intended).
  •  I don’t know the population of the village concerned, or whether the Park Run is a lot of incomers.
  •  I do not know if the Parish Council considered increasing their precept on the Council Tax to pay for further maintenance of the park concerned.

What I do know is this – it appears to be a classic case of the difficulty in managing a Common Pool Resource. In economics, a Common Pool Resource is one where you can’t easily stop people using it (it’s non-excludable) but where people using the resource deplete it until it cannot be used by anyone (it’s rivalrous). In this case the park is a Common Pool Resource because the Parish Council couldn't stop Park Run in the first place (it's non-excludable) and it create rivalry in two way: you can't easily share a path with hundreds of runners; and all those stomping feet will create wear-and-tear. This is different to an apple (a private good) which is excludable, no one else can eat it at the same time as you, and once you have eaten it, it has gone (it’s rivalrous); or street lighting (a public good) which is non-excludable (my A-Level economics teacher used to have a great skit on coin-operated street lights) and non-rivalrous, unless someone casts a particularly large shadow.

Neo-classical economics suggests that unless common pool resources are brought into the market (made excludable in some way), or are managed by bureaucracies, then the natural outcome will be the tragedy of the commons: every man (I use the pronoun purposefully) will use up the resource to their maximum extent which will mean it is eventually depleted for everyone. It sounds like this is what Stoke Gifford Parish Council believed was happening here. The Park Run was using the resource and it was being depleted to the detriment of everyone. Therefore a market solution was to make them pay.

The only woman to ever win the Nobel Prize for economics, the wonderful Elinor Ostrom, through actual empirical research, not fancy econometric modelling, basically said the neo-classical argument was rubbish. There were thousands of examples across the world where people had got together to manage common pool resources themselves. Close-knit webs of social ties meant that people trusted each other to use just enough of the resource. It also meant people were aware of the needs of others, so that if they over-used the resource then other people would suffer. Management of such resources can be co-produced by communities and government actors.

It sounds like the organisers of this Park Run wanted to get something like this going. The BBC reporting states:
“Geoff Keogh, a Parkrun organiser, told the meeting he did not believe the run had a significant impact on the park, but volunteers would be willing to undertake maintenance activities or litter picks "as a way of offsetting whatever the perceived costs might be to the council".”
The organisers wanted to give a bit, and ensure their event was still accessible, and regain the trust of the Parish Council. But the Parish Council view is that “it was "unfair" to expect non-running residents to pay for path upkeep”.

The fact that “fairness” has been thrown into the argument does suggest that a level of trust has broken down in this case. It also highlights that where there are difference in culture – in the case of my own research I’m interested in social class dynamics – getting collaborative management of common pool resources going can be very difficult. In this case, it would be really good if the District Council could come in and mediate, but I doubt now that they have the resources – as Helen Sullivan commented, such “Big Society” action to deliver collaborative management actually requires a “Big State”.  

Anyway, I don’t have any solutions for the residents of Little Stoke, or those runners. But it’s a fascinating case, and I hope someone is planning some doctoral research on it. What is more, as local authority budgets get cut more and more and basic maintenance becomes a luxury, I think we are going to see many more example of such battles of common pool resources. 


  1. It's hard to see how much wear and tear runners can do to tarmac paths? Parking on the other hand....

    1. Do we know they're tarmac? Do we know they're keeping to the paths? Do we know how many participants there are and whether they can keep to the paths? Do we know the capacity of the paths and how tight the rivalry for space is?

      As I say, no answers, but it is a classic case of competition for a CPR, as is road space and the behaviour of drivers.

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  2. On your comment that "I don’t know the population of the village concerned, or whether the Park Run is a lot of incomers": if it helps, Stoke Gifford isn't a separate village. It used to be, but over the last forty/fifty years has kind of got subsumed (or borgified) into Greater Bristol, so its basically a (relatively) leafy suburb district of Bristol.

    1. Cheers for clarifying this - as I say, there's a lot I don't know about this case because I've not been there. Good case for explaining the management of CPRs though.

  3. Like you, Peter, there is much I don't know about this case, but the examples you cite above suggest an "all of the resource, all of the time" scenario. In this case, it appears to be a part of the resource, very much part of the time; not greatly different, really, from a car parked on a street. Does the idea of democracy come in to this? Does the will of c200 runners override that of a handful of walkers for that one hour per week?

    1. The theory behind Ostrom's co-production and deliberative management of CPR's is on a completely different frame to ideas of majoritarian democracy. Majoritian democracy, Ostrom's work suggests, ordinarily leads to poor management of CPRs as the interests of the greatest number outweigh the collective interest. This is about recognising different interests in a collective way. The way of majoritarian democracy is a worrying one.

  4. An interesting contribution to the debate, thank you.

    I have been there, once. I took my daughter to the junior version. Minor points: we ran mostly on tarmac, sometimes on grass, we were encouraged to give way to non-parkrunners but there weren't any non-parkrunners in the park at that time. Slightly more major point, which you will couch in better terms than I do: volunteering that day (and presumably doing a bit of low-level maintenance as that's what the volunteers tend to do) was Chrissie Wellington, arguably one of the greatest athletes ever. Had there been anything of the commercial transaction that day I can't believe she would have been there and we would have lost the value of her presence (inspiration to live a healthy lifestyle, bonding of community etc). To attempt to monetise something that benefits from a lot of goodwill is often self-defeating even on its own terms.

    1. On the final point - exactly. That's what Ostrom's work shows, and numerous examples of trying to privatise CPRs shows that it invariably fails, or excludes users who do need to use the CPR.

      I do think the way forward in this case is some sort of deliberative forum with all concerned, facilitated by someone neutral with suitable skills. I actually feel sorry for the Parish Council - the decision might not have been the wisest, but they have now find themselves attacked on all sides for a difficult decision that they seem to have had difficulty managing.

    2. Thanks for replying. Yes, I see that I was merely parroting Ostrom but hell - it's nice to have a concrete example.

      I don't have that much sympathy for the PC as I think the decision was silly (= not the wisest) to a fault. I observe that free market dogmatists often tie themselves in knots in their attempts to create a situation in which 'the market can decide': in this case the PC appears to be attempting ineptly to do that while forgetting what a park is for.

      Rescinding parkrun permission to use the park on the grounds that it was interfering with other users to an untenable degree would have been an OK approach incidentally: wrong but not utterly crazy and would not have raised this level of interest.

      I agree that mediation would be best but assume it's pretty difficult to get there after the last 48 hours.

      (Although I listened to the head of the council on Radio 2 (Jeremy Vine) and I did feel sorry for him then as it was just embarrassing.)

    3. I loathe Jeremy Vine, so I missed that! I think they're well out of their depth on this one.

      And just to pick up on your opening statement - I hope my reply didn't come across as patronising, it certainly wasn't meant to be! Just making the links back to Ostrom's theory and empirical work.

    4. I only listened through a link - I know nothing about him but he was actually ok.

      I didn't feel patronised one iota!

      I suspect we're going to go about our days now. Have a good one.