Nationalize All The Nice Places

Beautiful public spaces should be held in common by the public and accessible freely to all.

The United States is home to some of the most beautiful places in the world. Even after centuries of degradation, this country is still chock-full of snowy mountains, mystic deserts, gorgeous coastlines, and every other screensaver-worthy setting you can envision. It’s easy to forget this, however, if like most Americans you spend the majority of your waking hours in a semi-somnolent shuffle through an environment that seems designed to suck the joy out of life. Drab workplaces, retailers laid out in an endless series of soulless rectangles, copy-and-paste homes built for quick profits rather than comfort—these are the places where we spend almost the entirety of our far-too-short lives on this planet. Unless, of course, we’ve had the good fortune to be born loaded or, by some rare stroke of luck, to have clawed our way into the ranks of the frequent flyer class. 

Should you have enough money and leisure time, the United States offers a staggering array of locales to delight the mind and invigorate the senses. These could be right down the street, or many hundreds of miles away, depending on where you call home. Regardless of their geographic location, more of these American oases are falling under private dominion with each passing month. Marketplace reports that 37 percent of national forest campgrounds are now run by private companies, while ski industry outlet New to Ski shows that nearly every resort of significant size has been swallowed up by a dwindling number of mega-companies. The biggest one, Vail Resorts, Inc., now has a market cap of $8 billion. It owns properties not only in Colorado but also in Vermont, Michigan, and California, among many other states (it owns resorts in Canada and Australia as well). The same pattern of private acquisition and consolidation is repeated elsewhere, as more of our nice places become assets in the portfolios of the wealthy, who then demand hefty entrance fees or exclusive memberships in exchange for the privilege of spending time in settings that aren’t dull and depressing as hell.   

That’s why we need to nationalize all the nice places. All the beaches, all the ski resorts, all the country clubs, all the private hunting reserves. We need to stop the steady segregation of the country into Zones for Elites and Zones for Plebes. We need to not only preserve our many mini-Edens, but to make them accessible to everyone. Mollie Beattie, the first woman to lead the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, once said, “What a country chooses to save is what a country chooses to say about itself.” What would nationalizing our nice places say about the United States? For starters, it’d show the country was finally getting serious about living up to one of its founding myths: that the bounties of the land belong to all those who live and work upon it.[1]

With all due respect to Mother Nature and her indisputable knack for decorating, many of the United States’ nicest places owe no small part of their charm to the minds and muscles of the low-paid workers who are, at present, prevented from enjoying those places in their leisure time. To illustrate: in my younger days, I earned $7.25 an hour working on the “turf management crew” of a Minnesota country club. Six days a week I would gather at 5:00 a.m. with my colleagues–the majority of whom were Mexican immigrants of hazy legal status–to begin the task of prepping the club’s sprawling golf course for the flood of wealthy patrons that would soon arrive. There were acres and acres of trees to trim, weeds to whack, and sand traps to rake until they were smooth and velvety as a tub of butter.

I hated every fucking second of it. 

Well, almost every second. Every morning there was a quiet dew-kissed moment—before the golfers began to show up with their $10,000 sets of clubs and their passive-aggressive (or just aggressive-aggressive) complaints about the placement of the pin on the 13th green—when the course seemed to be the loveliest place on earth. Willow trees hung with lazy grace over ponds whose reflections held both sun and moon. Great blue herons kept a silent vigil as they picked through the thickets of cattails. The rich reds and purples of geranium patches and lilac bushes gleamed like jewels amid the rolling verdant seas of grass. 

It always struck me as bizarre that although my colleagues and I were the ones who’d made this little patch of heaven, we were forbidden from setting foot on it unless we were carrying rakes or pushing lawnmowers. We were unable to pay thousands of dollars in initiation fees, never mind the monthly dues, and therefore we were permitted only to toil at the club, not to enjoy its beauty. 

All over the country, this de facto segregation on the basis of class (and race, which is a major factor on its own and as an element of class) is becoming impossible to ignore. It’s also unsustainable. Country clubs—which have historically been hostile to those of non-WASPy persuasions—are dying. According to market research firm IBISWorld, in 2010 there were nearly 11,000 such clubs; today there are 9,985. The reason is unsurprising to most of us who entered adulthood around the Great Recession: the young (mostly white) people who were supposed to be the “next generation” of country club members don’t have any money. As detailed by economist Gray Kimbrough, while Boomers owned 21 percent of the nation’s wealth by the time they hit 35, Millennials have less than half that, clocking in at a measly 9 percent. There are zero credible signs that Zoomers will reverse this trend. And so we’re staring at a future full of zombie country clubs being passed around by investors and real estate developers, scorned by an ever-dwindling number of rich people and still off-limits to everyone else. 

The shift may of course be cultural as well: many younger people wouldn’t want to spend their free time in this kind of environment (whether for golf or birdwatching or any other activity). The much larger problem is that almost any beautiful recreational place is being priced out of the reach of average Americans, particularly young Americans. Take ski resorts, for example. A recent survey by industry outlet Snow-Online found that the average price of a single-day lift pass in the United States is nearly $100, nearly double the price it was in 2000. This is also about 88 percent more expensive than a similar ticket in Switzerland. Are the Rocky Mountains a very nice place to go skiing? Sure. Are they that much nicer than the Swiss Alps? I find this hard to believe.  

Even beaches—which have provided free pleasure for generations of the young and/or broke—are getting harder and harder to enjoy if you don’t have a fistful of dollars to exchange for the privilege. While the United States has over 95,000 miles of shoreline, ultra-rich landowners are blocking off ever-greater chunks of beachfront property for their private enjoyment. As if that weren’t enough, they’re also hiring security guards and building fences to prevent ordinary people from accessing public beaches on “their property,” a trend that the Guardian highlighted back in 2015. Mark Zuckerberg might have gotten the most media attention for his attempt to claim Hawaii’s prettiest beaches for himself alone, but he’s far from the only wealthy prick doing his best to keep the teeming masses far away from his personal pleasure gardens. 

Zuckerberg and co.’s attempts at segregation draw on a rich American tradition of keeping “undesirables” away from nice places. Everyone knows that Black Americans were forbidden from using whites-only swimming pools in the Jim Crow South, but it’s less widely known that public beaches were also off limits well into the 1960s, even in “liberal” northern states like New York and Connecticut (and some recreational spaces like public pools are de facto segregated to this day). When Black residents in cities like Washington D.C. and New Orleans demanded a place to do some sunbathing of their own, they were given a few scraps of heavily polluted shoreline. Similar stipulations applied to other nice places like ski resorts—in the 1930s, the Black community in Colorado was forced to build its own resort, as the state’s powerful Ku Klux Klan chapter helped enforce a de facto policy of segregation on public slopes. The ramifications are felt to this day; as former SKI Magazine Hal Clifford noted, skiing is still the “whitest and least integrated popular sport in America.” 

While leveling the economic playing field could, in theory, help shrink the gap of (forgive me for using this hideous phrase) access to nice places, it’s not a silver bullet. After all, the Black middle classes in D.C. or Denver weren’t banned from nice places on account of their net worth, but because of their skin color. As long as private actors can control who gets to catch rays, rip powder, or take advantage of any other natural delights the U.S. has to offer, they’ll find a justification for keeping many people out. That’s why if this land is truly our land, it has to be nationalized. 

But now let’s answer the question every fiscal conservative worth their roomy-seated Dockers has been dying to ask: how would we actually nationalize all the nice places?  While it certainly seems like a reasonable question (if you’re asking it in good faith, it is!) in many cases this is a form of sealioning, which linguistic anthropologist Amy Johnson describes as a rhetorical trick used by those who feign ignorance about easily-findable information in order to exhaust and enrage their opponents.

Opponents of nationalizing nice places would like you to believe that, from a legal standpoint, such an endeavor is just too big and messy to even contemplate. And to be fair, there’s no “one weird trick” to confiscating the ill-gotten gains of private entities and returning them to public use. But let’s not give the sea lions too much credit. Governments already have a number of tools that could be used to nationalize nice places—the only thing lacking is the political will.

The most obvious tool for nationalizing nice places is eminent domain, which the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School defines as “the power of the government to take private property and convert it into public use.” While eminent domain is most often used to rob the poor to feed the rich, as detailed in a 2008 report in the journal Urban Studies, there’s no reason a government with different priorities couldn’t use this same mechanism to redistribute resources in the opposite direction. 

Asset seizures provide another method for nationalizing nice places that happen to be owned by less-than-scrupulous entities (which is quite common, as we’ll see). Data from the Department of Justice show that the U.S. Marshals Service held over $2.8 billion in assets as of September 2019, “including real estate [and] commercial businesses.” Currently, those assets are sold using “best practices from private industry” to finance essential purchases like killer police robots and military-style surveillance technology. There’s no reason a non-psychopathic government couldn’t seize a private golf course or beach resort and turn it over to public use instead. 

Even a cursory examination shows that the main obstacle to nationalizing the United States’ nice places isn’t a lack of laws or policies that would enable such moves. Instead, it’s a lack of willingness from those in power to exercise those laws and policies for the common good. If we had a federal government that gave the slightest shit about ordinary people, we’d be amazed at how simple it would be to make nice places accessible to everyone.

We need to nationalize all these nice places for the health of society. But we also need to nationalize them for the health of individuals. Relaxation and fun aren’t luxuries—they’re essential parts of human life. We can get doses of these vital soul-nutrients through activities that aren’t dependent on being in a specific place (for example, via books and games and movies) but—as those of us who have endured quarantine can attest to—they’re no replacement for actually going somewhere.

Research backs this up. A 2012 study in the journal Health & Place found that spending time near the water not only boosts one’s physical and mental well-being, but that these effects are even more pronounced for low income people who can’t afford the material luxuries others take for granted. In other words, the less able you are to pay for access to a private beach (or a public one that is being held for ransom by a team of hired goons), the more you would benefit from being able to access it. 

Beaches aren’t the only nice places to have demonstrable benefits for humans. You’ll probably be unsurprised to learn that scientists have found spending time in quiet environments with lots of plants can significantly reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and bestow other physiological and psychological blessings. The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or “taking in the forest atmosphere,” has proven so effective at improving people’s health that a 2010 study suggested it be used as “a strategy for preventative medicine.” In 2018, researchers writing in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that a few days in the mountains can do wonders for both your peace of mind and your cardiovascular health. 

Nationalizing the nation’s privatized forests, mountains, ski slopes, beachfronts, golf courses, and other nice places would clearly be in the best interests of ordinary Americans, but it would also draw predictable cries of outrage from the people who are presently trying to monopolize all the nice places. Perhaps the loudest one would be: well, if you let everyone into the nice places, then those places won’t be nice anymore!

This argument is drawn from the “tragedy of the commons,” an idea that has long been used by elites to justify privatization of pretty much everything. The phrase itself was made famous by a 1968 essay from ecologist Garrett Hardin in the journal Science, in which he argued that people’s selfish impulses will inevitably lead them to destroy any communal property or resource. Citing examples of ranchers who seek to increase the size of their own herds far past what the land can support, and fishermen who would empty the oceans of fish for the sake of personal gain, Hardin took a dim view of his fellow humans’ ability to control their base impulses (a view that has since been embraced by everyone from neoliberals to anarcho-primitivists). According to Hardin, “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.”

However, as the late political scientist Elinor Ostrom—the first and only woman to win the Nobel Prize in economics—showed through extensive field research, this is simply not the case. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about Spanish farmers, Indonesian fishermen, Swiss villagers, or American beachgoers: when people have a shared interest in safeguarding a common good, they tend to do a damn good job of it, even without a coercive authority forcing them to be on their best behavior. People, it turns out, devise unwritten codes of conduct to ensure their mutual benefit through a process of informal negotiation. This isn’t some utopian socialist pipe dream, it’s the same thing you do with your friends every time you take a long road trip together. There are always some points of contention to sort out (whether it’s the driver’s insistence on cranking late-period Bob Dylan or a nearby group of picnickers’ reluctance to pick up their beer cans), but even the gloomiest misanthropist would find it hard to suggest these are unsolvable problems.

Another common objection to nationalizing nice places (or anything, for that matter) is that it would somehow infringe upon the liberties of their “rightful owners.” If we were to make Augusta National Golf Club open to the public, for example, this would be an intolerable act of oppression against the fine stakeholders of Augusta National Inc., the company that club founder and Wall Street stock broker Clifford Roberts set up in 1932 to handle Augusta’s financial affairs. 

However, it’s mighty hard to make an argument that Augusta National Inc. is deserving of any sympathy. The club is notoriously bigoted[2]. In 2013, legendary TV announcer Bob Costas said he’d never be able to call the club’s signature Masters tournament because, “I’d have to say something [about Augusta’s history of racism and sexism] and then I’d be ejected.” While Augusta may be a dramatic example of “a beautiful place owned by terrible people,” it’s far from the only spot that fits that criterion. Most private nice places are owned either by powerful corporations with questionable principles—Mother Jones’ scathing 1999 exposé of Vail Resorts, Inc. shows how such companies prioritize catering to a select group of wealthy patrons over environmental conservation and the interests of local communities—or by individuals with a well-documented history of unethical behavior. Zuckerberg is an obvious one, but there are plenty of less-famous villains such as Ariel Quiros, a ski resort mogul who was recently implicated in massive fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission. It seems safe to say that most, if not all, of the places  owned by such goons could be requisitioned without relinquishing the moral high ground. 

Unless you’re opposed to the idea of ordinary people enjoying their lives (which, to be sure, is a popular stance among many of America’s finest thought leaders and petty tyrants), it’s hard to find a reason not to nationalize the country’s nice places. Such a move would make our world healthier, more equitable, and more interesting for everyone. It’s not the only thing necessary to lift us from our current collective doldrums—for people to be able to enjoy these nice nationalized places, they’d also need living wages, paid time off, quality child care, and affordable transportation, among other things—but it would be a big step in the right direction. And if it means that many of America’s golf courses would get turned into dog parks or laser tag complexes, that’s a price most of us would be delighted to pay. 

[1] As with many of the United States’ favorite myths, this one elides the fact that millions of indigenous people were persecuted and slaughtered so that waves of European colonists could reap said bounties.

[2] To be fair, the club has begrudgingly cleaned up its image a bit in recent years, having allowed a handful of women and Black people to join as members (small progress, to be sure). Still, it’s an improvement over the policies enforced under Roberts, who once said, “As long as I’m alive, all the golfers will be white [men] and all the caddies will be black.”

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