Yes, Parks and Recreation is an optimistic fantasy. The NBC show, set in the municipal government of fictional Pawnee, Indiana, airs its final episode next week, and lately a slew of downcast think pieces have mourned its lack of political realism. One writer argues that the show’s two leads, Ron Swanson and Leslie Knope, would never really be friends — she builds social safety nets, while he thinks capitalism is “God’s way of determining who is smart and who is poor.” Another posits that their bipartisan camaraderie makes the show more fanciful than Game of Thrones, which features an entire subplot devoted to dragons.
But despite its perennially rose-colored lens, the show actually tackled some complex municipal issues over its seven-year span. From public health disparities to park access, gentrification and even voting rights, Parks and Recreation hasn’t been all unlikely friendships, tiny horses and adorable three-legged dogs. Here are three ways it’s captured the wonkiest of municipal wonk with both humor and insight, illustrating the importance of public space, water infrastructure and even city incorporation.
1. Park Access
The idea that everyone should have access to parks came up repeatedly. In season two, KaBOOM!, an organization that builds playgrounds in underserved play deserts made a guest appearance. And in a not-at-all subtle move during season three, the neighboring (and much wealthier) town of Eagleton erected a fence along the city border to block Pawnee kids from playing in their playground.
Generally, the Pawnee/Eagleton socioeconomic divide provided little more than a simplistic look at inequity — Eagleton held town council meetings at a country club while Pawnee was overrun with fast food restaurants and raccoons — but that episode from 2010 (“Eagleton”), brought up an idea that was then only beginning to spark national conversation: health by zip code.
“The only thing they beat us in is life expectancy, beauty pageants and average income,” Leslie said of the rival town. When an audience member at Eagleton’s catered council meeting told her: “I’m in favor of the fence. I see it as a kind of punishment for Pawnee that might inspire your town to clean up its act,” Parks and Recreation snidely pointed out that the built environment — not personal choice — had created this health gap, which would shave years off Pawneeans’ lives.
2. Water Privatization
As Leslie rose from deputy parks director to city councilwoman to federal employee, her continued nemesis was a candy corporation called Sweetums. With the slogan “If you can’t beat em’, Sweetums,” a history of asthma-causing air pollution and even ownership of the town paper, Sweetums increasingly stood for rogue business everywhere — accountable to no one, likely a beneficiary of tax loopholes, corporate personhood and seven-figure lobbyists.
So it was fitting that, in 2013, Sweetums made a bid for the town’s water supply. Wanting to fill the reservoir with sugary “Drink ‘Ems” (“an alternative to boring old municipal water,” according to company president Jessica Wicks), the company applied to take over management of Pawnee’s infrastructure, a move that slimy councilman Jeremy Jamm claimed would save “ buku bucks.”
Aired the same year that Nestlé Chairman Peter Brabeck’s views on water and the free market went viral, the show seemed to draw from headline after headline about municipal privatization — a supposed panacea against leaking systems and rate increases.
“It would be madness to let Sweetums take over our water supply and pump it full of sugar,” Leslie said in 2013 episode “Fluoride.” If only her peers agreed.
3. Zoning and Incorporation
In season six, wealthy Eagleton declared bankruptcy. To help the town, Pawnee agreed to a merger that would dissolve Eagleton’s charter and fold the two governments into one.
Of course, the merger didn’t go so well. For one thing, Pawnee didn’t even have a Department of Infinity Pool Design. But the problem turned out to be bigger than graffiti slurs and soft-spoken public radio feuds. In the season finale, another official warned Leslie that it could be disastrous for both towns’ city-hood. “The economy went south,” he said, speaking from experience. “My home town hit some hard times and was converted to [dramatic pause] unincorporated territory.”
The politics of incorporation are incredibly boring on the surface, but extremely important. My own Bay Area city, for example, is basically built in the shape of a donut. In the middle lies an island of county that just happens to include some of the area’s lowest median incomes and highest concentration of racial minorities. Despite the fact that incorporated land surrounds these households on all sides, they have no voice in city government.
Characteristically, the Parks and Recreation take on incorporation was lighter and, again, lacked any kind of nuanced racial or socioeconomic breakdown. But the show did a good job of pointing out its dangers in an episode called “Filibuster,” when that same Jeremy Jamm introduced a bill that would only allow citizens to vote in a Pawnee election if they had a Pawnee address. It sounded sensible enough, except that all of Eagleton was no longer incorporated and couldn’t vote. Once again, the show distilled a complicated issue down to a single fact: If you didn’t belong to the city, you couldn’t vote.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.