Appearances? Yes, Spend The Money

COMMENT

January 23, 1994|By BRIAN SULLAM

When the Westminster City Council voted to accept the State Highway Department's offer to landscape the Route 140 median strip in Westminster, the council was doing more than accepting $100,000 of trees and shrubs.

The council came down on the side of improving the appearance a public space.

There was a day when public space referred to a town square, park or plaza, but today, the most used public spaces are our highways.

Yet our roads are some of the most unattractive parts of our communities.

Take the stretch of Route 140 that is to be landscaped.

Shopping centers, car dealers, gas stations, fast food restaurants and other assorted businesses line both sides of the road. A hodgepodge of signs, billboards, parking lots and brightly colored commercial buildings dominate the vista on each side of the road. With the exception of a few forlorn trees and bushes, grass is the only vegetation on the median strip.

The appearance of the road and its immediate environs is hardly one that recommends Westminster. Yet the Carroll County commissioners refused the landscaping. They offered a number of reasons: maintenance costs would be too expensive, county employees working on the landscaping might be in danger, and the money could be better spent on other highway projects.

They never offered what may be the real reason for their opposition.

The commissioners apparently don't feel that they have an obligation to improve the county's appearance.

If the commissioners don't feel a compelling interest in this small project to improve the county's appearance, it is not surprising that they also have minimal interest in protecting Chesapeake Bay, the greatest natural resource of this region.

When the commissioners decided against signing a general statement to protect the bay because it might obligate the county to spend money, the implicit message was that the county government doesn't have any responsibility for this public space either.

The question then arises: Who is responsible for the stewardship of these spaces that we collectively own and then pass on to succeeding generations?

The commissioners would have us believe from their example that because the care of median strips, streams and the bay may cost money, the county government should not assume those duties.

The cost to the county -- and ultimately to Carroll's taxpayers -- should be of concern because the taxpayers have limited resources.

But the commissioners seem to be taking the position that once the variable of money -- even the smallest amount -- enters the equation, then the cost is too great.

They don't seem to consider the benefits that might be derived from spending public money.

Analyzed from a cost-benefit standpoint, the landscaping of the Route 140 median should pass muster.

The cost to the county -- and now the city of Westminster -- is for annual maintenance. The estimates vary from a low of about $5,000 to a high of $24,000.

Considering Anne Arundel County has spent about $6,000 annually on similar median landscaping, the higher number seems out of line. For the sake of argument, let's assume the cost is $10,000 a year.

What is the benefit?

The most tangible is a more attractive road through Westminster. The State Highway Administration estimates that about 46,000 cars pass through that stretch of road during a 12-hour period from the beginning of the morning rush hour through the end of the evening one, which means that a lot of people will have a pleasant visual experience driving through Carroll's largest town.

Is that worth the money?

I think so.

Appearances may be superficial, but the condition of public spaces tells a great deal about a community and its inhabitants on a variety of different levels.

Well-tended parks, plazas, squares and medians are a good indication that the community cares about itself. In many ways, communities are like individuals. A well-groomed person exudes that sense of self-worth that a disheveled one lacks.

The same can be said for a community. An attractive community tells its residents that they matter and that it is a good place for people to live and work.

Attractive public spaces for all to enjoy also convey the implicit message that all citizens, regardless of their incomes or social status, are valuable members of the community. In highly stratified societies, the elites -- whether they are royalty in monarchies or the ruling party in a totalitarian societies -- have access to the most attractive houses, gardens and natural areas because they are the only people worthy enough to enjoy them.

The ability of people to congregate together on equal footing is an essential part of a functioning democracy, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed more than 170 years ago in "Democracy in America."

"When the conditions of men are very unequal and the inequalities are permanent," he wrote, "individual men gradually become so dissimilar that each class assumes the aspect of a distinct race."

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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