Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Thoughts From A Roadside

Several thoughts raced through my mind yesterday while viewing the roadside of a freeway interchange in Durham, North Carolina, where I live.

These parcels are very park-like when well-maintained, as members of a public-private coalition called Durham Appearance Advocacy Group (DAAG) is trying to do by forging alliances between local governments, businesses and groups such as garden clubs and Scenic North Carolina.

The one we discussed yesterday is meant to serve as a template for every interchange in Durham.

But ironically, regressives in the State Legislature have been working at odds, filing bills to disable state management of these roadsides and permitting out-of-state billboard companies to wantonly deforest them in order to prop up an obsolete technology few Americans use now.

Now they have even filed a bill, with an innocuous misleading intro, meant to override wildly popular democratically enacted bans on this form of desecration marketing and blight that have stood in communities such as Durham for more than three decades and ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

This tyranny by representatives not from Durham reminds me that revolutionaries founded our democracy not in opposition to taxes but due to corporate loopholes granted by the feudal systems of governance then in place.

In opposition at the time and ever since stood regressives trying to pull the country backwards.  One wonders, will another revolution soon be sparked?

In the 1930s, roadsides such as those I was standing alongside yesterday were already battlegrounds between the forces of blight and the forces of scenic preservations.  Jobs, jobs, jobs was the mantra then too but it was both/and when it came to scenic preservation.

Highway 100 was one of the first, if not the very first beltlines in the country.  It patched together a series of existing roads south and west of Minneapolis but included new construction of a stretch of more than 12 miles including what we now call clover leafs.

It was deemed the “Lilac Drive,” lined with 30,000 plants including 8,000 Lilac shrubs and 7 roadside parks.  It became a recreational destination and living proof that Americans are drawn to scenic character over commercial blight along their roadsides.

It was in the middle of nowhere back then but had the support of development interests and billboard companies eagerly pushing for sprawling suburbs that would soon gobble up acreage at a rate many times the rate of population growth, as it still does today in Durham.

Emily Badger reported in The Washington Post this week about a new study that that concludes that sprawl costs the U.S. economy now more than $1 trillion a year.

The reason deficit hawks are not licking their chops is that $400 billion of this is pushed off on other people, something economists call negative externalities, which is a fancy word to describe when the free market doesn’t incorporate its true costs.

Only a portion is found in inflated costs for public services.  We absorb the rest sometimes in our lungs and often while stuck in traffic, but all in all it is very similar to the tax loophole that led to the original Boston Tea Party.

Billboarders and their legislative allies aren’t the only ones who want to shift even more of those costs onto unsuspecting Tar Heels including millions of us “hard-working taxpayers” we so often hear regressives talk about.

Over the last five decades (1960s-2000s,) the NCDOT has carefully reforested and afforested more than 5 million trees along the state’s roadsides, in part, to mitigate for many times that number which had been destroyed during road constructions.

The trees were also meant to bolster a signature ingredient of North Carolina’s brand.

This included lining the state’s roadways with spectacular understory trees such as native Redbuds and Dogwoods, the state tree.  Then, without thinking, another unit enabled private maintenance contractors to destroy most of them just for their convenience.

During our cross-country road-trip a few months ago for my mom’s funeral, Mugs and I took I-64 through Saint Louis.  This included a 10 to 11 mile stretch through the heart of that area that had recently been rehabilitated.

Some even call it that community’s front door.

The area is sea of concrete and buildings leaving almost no roadside.  But the Missouri DOT has carefully carved tiny slivers of planting areas where possible along this stretch and recruited businesses and organizations as landscape sponsors.

It too, I suspect is meant as a pilot project for a more strategic approach going forward.  An example of the discreet but very visible signs erected for sponsors is shown as the image in this blog.

Research shows that less than a fraction of 1% of consumers still use billboards.  It takes less than six seconds to decipher one but consumers only give them an average of three, even when digitally flashing on and off intermittently to draw attention away from the road.

Yet billboard companies now want to deforest even interchanges in hopes that someone traveling past them or focused on exiting or merging onto the highway will have twice as long to look.

Yes, it is obscene and possibly the spark for another revolution, if not with torches, pitchforks or midnight rides, a roadside revolt.

1 comment:

Durham Skywriter said...

When I first moved to Durham, I noticed all of the empty planting beds downtown and wondered why the gardening clubs didn't partner with the building owners. It would have been nice to have a local gardening center donate flowers to gardening clubs, whose members would plant them downtown. Signs could be displayed noting the partnership of the store and gardening club. I still think something like that could work.