Friday, April 17, 2015

Closing Gaps to Enhance North Carolina’s Curb Appeal

The comprehensive litter report for North Carolina is out.  It is required by state law and carried out by NCDOT’s Office of Beautification, a part of the Roadside Environmental Unit.

Roadside is also the unit responsible for creation of Scenic Byways and North Carolina’s award-winning wildflower program.

The annual report is assembled each spring to document interagency efforts to clean up, and in some cases even beautify, roadways and streams throughout the state.

It includes some of those performed by nonprofits and other groups of volunteers, as well, but not all.

There are many ways communities should be using the report including publishing similar reports that delve deeper into efforts at the local level for towns, cities and counties.

The report provides details each year that can and should be used to establish metrics for benchmark communities.  Some breakdowns by county are not always included which is a shame.

These are input and output averages that can be compared over time against similar sized jurisdictions, or better yet, on a per population metric that includes:

  • residents who live there
  • non-residents who commute there for work or school
  • inbound daytrip and overnight visitors

As comprehensive as the state-wide report is, there are some glaring gaps.

For instance it does not include losses due roadside deforestation including those billboard companies now permitted to clear cut huge swaths of forest, nor agency efforts related to reforestation and afforestation along roadsides as well as increase wildflower acreage.

Data such as this would be useful to calibrate related beautification efforts to shore up an important element of the North Carolina brand, but it would also illustrate a need for a roadside forest management plan.

Clear in the report is how much effort goes into picking up after people compared to proactive efforts to enhance the state’s curb appeal to a new level, as well as how little by comparison is done to police the deliberate desecration of roadsides and streams.

Knowing, for instance, that 150 tons of trash and debris were removed from 1,300 miles of streams across the state during the annual fall cleanup is impressive.  (Note that communities such as Durham where I live do this twice a year with hundreds of “little” sweeps throughout the year.)

But it doesn’t appear any forensic analysis was conducted to identify litter sources for follow up either to address ignorance if that was the cause, or to prosecute when it is being done deliberately.

Litter citations and convictions at the end of the report merely illustrate that both law enforcement agencies and cleanup efforts are failing to follow up on behavioral studies.

For instance, we know now to carefully monitor abuse of animals because it is a sign that domestic abuse of spouses and children is also likely at these locations.

Similarly, we know from national studies of littering not only what portion of the public is involved (17%) but the percentage that do it deliberately (4%.)

Furthermore, we know that not only do smokers contribute significantly to the littler stream, but even when butts are excluded, they are two times more likely to litter.

This means that educational and enforcement efforts can be more effective if focused on the 15% (13.4% daily) who smoke.  It also means that educational efforts are best focused on socio-economic groups where use of tobacco products is exceptionally high.

The findings also suggest that dealing with mental health issues such as depression is a means to reduce litter and debris in streams and along roadsides.

It is difficult to understand why Durham County with a greater ratio of commuters and visitors per 1000 residents than Wake County but with only 1/3rd the land area and resident population, issues less than 1/10th the number of annual citations for littering.

There are many ways that appearance advocates, beautification groups and policy makers can use the valuable information in this report.

But making the appearance of the state, as well as its towns, cities and counties as much a priority with lawmakers as it is with residents, visitors and newcomers, including those seeking to relocate businesses, will close the biggest gap of all.

Strategy is about alignment.  If job creation and enhancing the North Carolina brand are important objectives, we need to make appearance and beautification an overarching priority.

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