Tuesday, February 28, 2012

3 Canons of Community Appearance and a Case for NIDs

For me a thorough study of research on littering behavior, such as that commissioned by Keep America Beautiful, helped reveal three canons about community appearance (in my words):

  • Beautification that is not preceded by basic and sustainable day-to-day routines for cleanup of public areas such as roadsides is like proverbial “putting lipstick on pig” and a waste of resources


  • Episodic “deep-clean” events, no matter the degree of volunteer involvement and enthusiasm are a complement to, never a substitute for, on-going, day-to-day systemic maintenance, and


  • Beatification efforts only when layered on vigilant cleanup routines will extend their effectiveness and provide an inoculation against carelessness including littering. They also inspire and beget diligence from agencies at other levels of government.

Involving volunteers in community clean up can be a great way to get by-in and to create or deepen shared values, but far too many communities use these episodic events as a substitute for what should be sustained day-to-day baseline maintenance of a community’s trails, public areas, roadsides and medians.  It should be both/and, never either/or.

Even worse is that some communities seem to often view volunteer efforts as an excuse to divert funds from day-to-day routine maintenance or as a means to compensate for failure to put a light under uninspired bureaucrats.  It should be both/and, never either/or.

Volunteers, even in places such as Durham, North Carolina where they seem almost temporally embedded in the community’s DNA, should never be taken for granted.  But only in very small towns is volunteer effort truly scalable and sustainable as a means to serve community-wide needs.

Durham where I live is struggling with the issue of cleanup vs. beautification.  Among many transcendent superlatives, roadside appearance is the only area to which residents give a failing grades, one for general cleanup and day-to-day maintenance and the other for roadside directional signs.  Officials appear to often misinterpret the negative scores only in terms of “beautification.”  Photo op anyone?

Drew Cummings, a young Assistant County Manager for Special Projects and perhaps the best public administrator I’ve ever known (and I’ve known and worked with hundreds and many of the best during my now-concluded 40-year career in community-visitor-related economic development) took a much more in-depth look at 25 different roadside stretches and interchanges referred to as gateways.

As part the Durham Appearance Advocacy Group (DAAG,) a gap-closing team of appearance activists and organizations along with appearance-related local agencies, Drew teamed with City staff and methodically indexed these “gateway” areas according to miles and acreage as well as status of deterioration and difficulty of terrain and estimated that, collectively, it could require as much as half a million dollars or more to reverse the effects of neglect and restore them to a status sufficient to support  beautification.

For safety reasons volunteers are not an option to do the work, but this doesn’t mean volunteers can’t oversee the work.  In my opinion, local, neighborhood direction and oversight of clean up and beautification efforts through “Neighborhood Improvement Districts” (NIDs), makes just as much or more sense as the more common “Business Improvement Districts” or BIDs, especially if established and governed by “popular vote” of all those living and doing business within the district boundaries including both renters and homeowners as well as business building owners and tenants.

Controversy over BIDs, including one proposed for Downtown Durham is usually more about the lack of a popular vote and how it will be governed than it is about the creation of the BID itself. To me it seems that a vote by secret ballot is essential and a “no-brainer” regardless of whether or not it is required or not by law.  Public hearings are no substitute.

Each NID could also be granted, upon majority vote, the right to request the levy of a special assessment to augment and amplify services such as cleanup and beautification above and beyond the base services provided community-wide but never as a substitute.

Unfortunately, NIDs and local neighborhood oversight may be the only means to prevent cities and counties from becoming blinded to neglect and to the overall importance of community appearance and its overarching relationship to property values/tax base, public health, crime prevention, economic and workforce development, solid waste reduction, education, facility maintenance and to the quality of water, air and life.

To adapt the words of semantic researcher Dr. Frank Luntz - NIDs could very well be a paradigm-breaking, game-changing breakthrough for community appearance!

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