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If we don't maintain, it'll fall apart

If we don't maintain what we have, it will fall apart.

My neighborhood is lobbying the City for $1 million in streetscape redesign money to match $4 million promised by our business district. At some level, this is a reasonable public-private partnership; businesses provide 80 percent of the funding and the city covers the rest. Yet, there is another side to this otherwise agreeable story.

The neighborhood has been arguing that our streetscape is falling apart and it needs to be fixed. They've been making this plea for a couple years. Maintenance is expensive, or so it goes, and it'd be just better if we tore it all out and built something new.

Here's what it looks like today:




Bricks are missing. Retaining walls are sloping. The area is starting to age (well, it's almost 30 years old!).

Something has bothered me about the not-so-old bricked streetscape and the business district's complaint: there's nothing wrong that can't be fixed with a little duct tape and TLC. All of the neighborhood's minor chips and dents could be solved with about $5,000 of brick, mortar and the labor cost of an underemployed bricklayer.

But, if fixing what we have takes such little effort, why aren't we doing it? And why are we spending $5 million to boot!?! And, why should we trust someone with a new, more expensive streetscape if they aren't even responsible enough to minimally maintain the basics of what they currently have?

Let me give you a few examples:


Ten bricks have fallen off, but no one has even bothered to pick the weeds?


A tree has been removed, yet instead of re-planting a tree (total cost: $250 - $400), we let the soil collect weeds?


A patch of weeds? How about some grass, a bench and a bike rack?


Here's the level of disregard: I noticed the condition (left) had been poor for a couple weeks. I decided to get on my knees and get to work. Two minutes later I had rearranged the bricks (right). It's not a perfect, but it looks 10 times better (and it took literally two minutes). In weeks, not a soul who worked for the business or the city government thought to do something.

These are not streetscapes in front of marginal businesses. This is Highland Park in St. Paul. The photos were taken outside of a high-end yoga studio, boutique medical clinic, Barnes & Noble, upscale gift shop, popular book store and a busy sub shop. So, what gives?

The best analogy is that you buy a new house in 1985. For 28 years, you do nothing. Now, it's 2013 and the roof leaks water, the kitchen is out-dated and the basement is moldy. It's in a state of disrepair and you tear it down!

This, of course, is ridiculous. You wouldn't do that! The second the roof started to leak, you'd fix it. When the stove stopped working, you'd replace it. When the basement got musty, you'd clean it and buy a dehumidifier. Now, why aren't we doing this with local community infrastructure?

This is exactly what is happening with my local business district, and likely, yours too. The problem is that people involved assume it's someone else's responsibility. It's a byproduct of the top-down approach. The business district can contend it's the city's fault while the city claims the business district has it backwards. The real is answer that it's not clear. Nobody appears to know what's going on, so by default, no one does anything.

This model takes the constant "eyes on the street" to handle small issues away from locals, or at least, confuses them about what to do. The $5 million project is a big windfall that takes little effort on behalf of the businesses besides a financial contribution. They provide the money and the city rebuilds the sidewalks. Yet, constantly tending to bricks, picking weeds and planting flowers; well, that takes effort (but little money). It's the type of effort that can only be handled by the locals, those who experience and interact with the space on a daily basis.

We've bypassed the maintenance and defaulted to the "built it brand-spanking-new then leave it alone for 20 years and then say it's falling apart and we need a new one" policy. This is how we treat public infrastructure in the United States, be it a water main, public park, sports stadium or pedestrian mall.

There is one place that has a not-so-crumbling bricked planter. It's outside a wine and cheese shop and eye clinic. They've given the street some duct tape and it looks like this:


Not bad. It's the same bricked planter as everywhere else in the neighborhood. It's missing a few bricks, but pieced together and has some flowers. Flowers aren't cheap, but their small investment makes the streetscape better by many times over. If nothing else, while walking past, one gets the impression that the business, and the people who run it, care about the neighborhood.

St. Paul giving $1 million to Highland Park to improve the streetscape is akin to watching your teenager beat up the old Buick and then deciding to buy him a new car because the old car is in such bad shape (that, and there are about 1 million better ways to spend $1 million locally).

The heart of the matter is that this isn't the way we should treat shared infrastructure. We need to constantly be on the lookout at the most local level and constantly care for its health. If we don't maintain what we have, it will fall apart. And it'll cost us a lot more money to fix it back up.

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Reader Comments (15)

As always, Nate, your stuff is brilliantly insightful. I can see you on the ground rearranging bricks. Awesome.

Your post reminded me of many conversations I've had with city maintenance staff, particularly as it comes to streets. It is not only a matter of designing everything to be maintained from the seat of a huge truck, but they even go so far as to demand that said truck should not have to back up or even slow down much while doing maintenance. I heard Steve Mouzon once explain how "maintenance free" just meant that it can't be maintained, that you just use it until it catastrophically fails and then throw it away. You are showing here that, and it's very clear throughout our cities, that we've actually adopted that mindset with places we could maintain.

I don't put this all on the city maintenance staff. They're asked to do a certain job and it is natural that they would think of city space in terms of the job they are being asked to do. I think it is more about us, how we pay money to government and then expect them to care for our public spaces the way we would if they were ours. Well, they are ours. That last planter you show gives me hope.

September 11, 2013 | Registered CommenterCharles Marohn

Nate, I hope you forward this to every member of your city council AND the paper. A whole lot of people will recognize the sense your speaking and back you up.

September 11, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrth

I've seen enough homes to be confident in saying that plenty of people do take the same attitude about their homes. They may not go so far as to tear down the home but they'll defer maintenance for years even as the original problem goes from minor to major and the costs go with it. I don't think this is just an "American" thing but it does fall into a far too common attitude of some Americans to use something until it falls apart and then replace it with something shiny and new.

As far as maintaining the streetscape, I would say that the major problem is that maintenance like this tends to be labor intensive, which means money that no one wants to spend on people to get on their knees and move bricks and pull weeds. If the business district can put together $4 million to do a new streetscape, why can't they fund the ongoing maintenance along the lines of what you showed outside the wine and cheese shop and eye clinic?

September 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Q.

I often transfer to other buses in Highland Park, and I've noticed the same thing.

I wasn't the only one thinking of Steve Mouzon's quips as I was reading this. Steve pushes for patchable work, not throwaway work. St. Paul should just patch this up.

September 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMatt MSP

I've seen the same thing transferring buses in Highland. I wonder why the neighborhood association couldn't just pass the hat around and hire that underemployed bricklayer themselves for a month, tactical urbanism style?

September 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew B

Thanks everyone. Glad you enjoyed it. And, yes, I'll be modifying this post and send it to my local newspaper, The Villager.

September 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel Hood

I think one of the issues is that we have been taught (purposefully) that maintenance is not desirable. We have an economy based around planned obsolescence; all of our major purchases (appliances, cars, asphalt shingle roofs, and so on) are definitely intended for replacement, not repair. Even simple things, like razor blades, have been replaced with disposable cartridges. Add to that a lack of civic identity and shared community identity, and you end up with declines.

I wonder if some people might be afraid of inadvertently getting in trouble, as well? It has all but been forgotten that public property belongs to everyone.

September 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBlake Hyde

As per Mr. Hyde's "afraid of inadvertently getting in trouble"--indeed! That phrase brings to mind an experience of mine one time at Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis. It was during a dry spell, like now, when I was at an event there, and being one who hates seeing drooping, about-to-die plants, I was in the midst of carting some water to them when I was stopped by a Park Board cop. He actually threatened to arrest me if I persisted!

September 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPete Doughty

It was a mistake to make the planters out of mortared brick. In this climate, with the seasonal freeze/thaw cycles, the rigid structures were bound to crack and crumble, as the ground heaved and sunk. Better to make something like that out of a mortarless landscape block, like VERSA-LOK retaining wall blocks. Not only will they accommodate the freeze/thaw, but also allow excess water to weep out of the planters.

September 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKen J

Need to find some way to have a grand opening ribbon-cutting for ongoing maintenance.

September 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterScot

This is so accurate it makes me a little ill. I've seen it as a citizen, a city employee, and now as a newly elected local official. It's so easy to fix, but impossible with our current way of doing things!

September 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJinTexas

This stuff drives me crazy too. My guess is that a lot of it has to do with long-standing federal/state practices of giving municipalities money for capital improvements, but not maintenance. Every engineer & planner I know has been in a meeting w/ public officials where they heard some version of "yeah, but if we don't do it, they'll just send the money somewhere else"...

September 12, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterletsgola

In order to make this kind of maintenance feasible for an overstretched public works department, it helps to get the citizens to find the problems, instead of having some kind of combined inspection & maintenance regime. That's why Boston has a fully buzzword-compliant see-click-fix program using people's mobile phones to photograph and report problems, (with GPS coords), which the DPW then goes out to fix.

September 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterOmri

I nominate Nate Hood for Urbanist of the Year! Way to get your hands dirty and make a difference.

I find it disconcerting that Highland of all places cannot find a way to keep up what was a beautiful streetscape.

I'd love to see a little more investigation with city hall and the Highland Business Association as to WHY this is allowed to happen.

September 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSam Newberg

Thanks Sam! I'm going to be writing a lot more on Highland Park in the future. Most recently, their push at the City Council to limit street closures for events and races.

September 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel Hood
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