My Vacation and the Economics of Public Space

Here’s my self-indulgent Summer vacation blog.

John Kenneth Galbraith is rightly renowned for the contrast he drew between private affluence and public squalor in the US. Yet he also argued that public investment is needed to sustain private affluence. What the US has generally – but not always – got hugely wrong is the balance between investment in the public and private sphere.

Here’s a modest anecdote in point. I’ve just returned from a few days in and near Virginia Beach, VA, a fortuitous place to land up in after we dropped my daughter off at a week long water polo camp in Maryland. I rather enjoyed it. There’s a great beach with lots of big waves rolling in, lifeguards every 100 yards or so to drag you out of the rip tides if needed, and a rather fine public space, a 40 block long public boardwalk paralleling the beach on which literally thousands bike, roller skate and promenade (along separate pathways) day and night. There is free music every night, quality bands plus lots of buskers, and great opportunities for people-watching, not to mention scores of decent bars and restaurants. The crowd was mainly families and groups of friends, but pretty diverse

The key point is that Virginia Beach has a great public space. The beach and board walk belong to everyone and are bordered mainly by 40 blocks of hotels as opposed to condos, many of them quite affordable. This is quite unlike the Caribbean norm of private beach resorts and ersatz clubs, each with its own strip of controlled access private beach.

I can’t vouch entirely for the accuracy of my informants, but I’m told the boardwalk was built with federal government dollars, and that the huge beach was extended by dumping sand dredged while building the two huge tunnels which cross nearby Chesapeake Bay. So, we have a lot of hotels making money off an intelligent public investment, and lots of ordinary Americans enjoying an affordable vacation which reminds one of summer resorts of time gone by.


  • One observation I came away with from our recent camping trip was how there are still a few places out there where class does not whack you in the face. Campgrounds, public parks, ferry rides, in addition to the public spaces Andrew mentions are great equalizers, with people from all walks of life thrown together. It is a nice contrast from the starred hotel system or the airline’s class structure of elite, super-elite and all that.

  • Quite similar experience I had a couple years back in North Carolina north of Cape Fear- Wilmington- Wrightsville- Kure beaches. I quite liked the Blockade running history of the area as well. Public boardwalks, fishing from the board walks was amazing.

    Coming from the shores of Lake Superior, I didn’t think the ocean beaches would be much different from what I had grew up with, but I was quite surprised at the diversity of biology. Affordability and the lack of development was the key for me and the family.

    I also had to be at the SAS HQ in the research triangle near Raleigh so travel was not an issue.

    Anybody ever been to the research triangle or RTP as they call it locally. That was an experience in itself, it was so un-industry like. HQ for many of corporate america’s top companies, it was like traveling along an estate roadway. Each major HQ had broad rolling landscapes, and nestled away behind quite lavish greenery were these massive research buildings. Everything was so neat and tidy and perfect looking. I was simply amazed. A long way from the scenic space of Algoma Steel that was in my back yard in the Sault.

    Also the jobs that I felt would never pay a dollar of payroll in my home country was the other feeling I was having as I shook my head at the branch plant mentality that pervades our economics and the decision making space we are held ransom to.

    So many high paying jobs! So many new cars!


  • that should have read research HQ for many of corporate America’s large companies

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