If We’re Not Going to Maintain What We Have, Then Why Bother Building Anything New?


This past weekend I was fortunate enough to take my youngest daughter to Walt Disney World in Florida. It was one of those special father/daughter trips with lots of conversation, fun experiences, and many memories. I’m very thankful for all the good fortune in my life.

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As we were walking, we came across a work crew doing some concrete patching. They had done a couple of small patches and, while that was curing, they were power washing some cracks and sealing them up. This wasn’t an “onstage” area—the guest area within one of the theme parks—but a walkway between two resorts, the Dolphin/Swan and the Boardwalk. I took a couple photos and then reassured them I was an engineer on vacation, not someone checking up on their work (which seemed just fine, for what it’s worth).

Look at those patches. One was about 12 square feet and the other about 2. That’s about 5 cubic feet of concrete—a little more than a wheelbarrow full. It’s an amount you could purchase at a local hardware store and mix together with a garden hose. No big deal.

My daughter wanted to know why I snapped that picture (especially since all my other pictures included her) and that caused us to talk about what it takes to maintain a sidewalk. Not much in terms of effort; just a commitment to doing it. Then we talked about the condition of the sidewalks in our city back home. She’s a smart kid and got it right away.

“Dad, why doesn’t our city fix the sidewalks before they fall apart?”

It was Steve Mouzon who first told me that a place needed to be lovable, that we only maintain that which we love. I never learned anything about “lovability” in my undergraduate course on concrete structures, and I know of no engineering manual that references it, yet I’ve found Steve’s insight to be an undeniable truth.

I love my house—and have deep respect for the resources that went into building it, as well as the amount of effort it will take to retire my mortgage—and so I maintain it. I don’t wait for concrete to fall apart before patching it. I don’t wait for the siding to rot before repainting it. I don’t wait for the roof to leak before maintaining it.

Why Local Governments Don’t Put Maintenance First

The public grows used to decline and decay.... The richest cities in North America—New York City, San Francisco, Washington D.C.—suffer with escalators on their transit systems out of service for years.

Local governments suffer from a dual set of challenges when it comes to maintenance. The first is that most of what we’ve built is not lovable, at least not broadly lovable. The asphalt cul-de-sac has some functional appeal to the people who live on it, but the broader community is not going to demand it be maintained. The same with those DOT-specified streetlights the city purchased in bulk. The plastic park equipment may be sanitized and safe, but even it is unlikely to endear.

For the most part, the Growth Ponzi Scheme has put our cities on a path of quantity over quality. We build a lot of stuff, all of it to a finished state. That stuff then sits and rots—perhaps with some nominal maintenance from time to time—until it falls apart, at which point we put together a huge project to replace it with something new built to a finished state.

My local school district is a good example of this. Every couple of decades we are told how terrible the shape of our schools is, how they are outdated, falling apart and need lots of maintenance just to make them usable. This assessment is always accompanied—with all sincerity—by a request for millions to build new stuff. Will this new stuff be maintained? Of course it will, they say now, but we’ve all been here before: as soon as the sheen wears off the new building, we discover it really isn’t lovable and thus really not worth maintaining, especially when maintenance would need to compete for funds with other things we do love. Let this run and then repeat the cycle.

What this means is that nearly all public investments—infrastructure, buildings, parks and other facilities—have a predictable life cycle. Initially they are shiny and new. Then they start to wear, fray, and show signs of decline. Then they start to fail to various degrees, finally followed by either a complete failure or a major reconstruction project (generally using debt financing).

Throughout this process, the public grows used to decline and decay—almost comes to accept it as normal—while the world around us becomes less and less lovable each day. This is, for example, how the richest cities in North America—New York City, San Francisco, Washington D.C.—suffer with escalators on their transit systems out of service for years. These things are not difficult to fix when maintenance is prioritized, but when it’s not, just wait for the next large maintenance bond and fix it all at once.

Disney takes a quality over quantity approach, one obsessively focused on creating lovable space. And they maintain everything they build. In their mindset, if you’re not going to maintain it obsessively, why bother building it?

In the meantime, we can’t have nice things.

This enables the second challenge local governments face, that of low expectations. Even when something is lovable, it generally gets the same bad maintenance habits applied. Here in my hometown, our historic water tower and historic city hall building both suffer from decades of neglect and deferred maintenance. These structures are loved—people here in my community have fought, and will continue to push, to keep both—but they are systematically neglected, nonetheless.

I recognize that the Walt Disney Corporation has billions of dollars, but they have also been highly disciplined about how they build and maintain their theme parks and resorts. Theirs is always a quality over quantity approach, one obsessively focused on creating lovable space. And they maintain everything they build. In their mindset, if you’re not going to maintain it obsessively, why bother building it?

Our cities have lots of wealth, and can built much more, by shifting focus, but this will require new habits. And new obsessions. Our local government budgets need to shift from building new to maintaining what we have. Our staff time needs to shift from bulk delivery of service to improved quality in high-productivity neighborhoods.

The mentality of “easy to maintain” needs to be replaced with a question of whether something is “worth maintaining.”

This isn’t difficult to do. See a streetlight out: replace it. See a weed: pull it. See a crosswalk faded: repaint it. See a sidewalk broken: fix it. It’s lunacy that anyone at City Hall would be working on expansion of anything when these urgently simple things are not being tended to.

I’ll note: Nothing of what I’m suggesting is efficient. In fact, it is the opposite of efficient. If the Walt Disney Corporation was acting efficiently, they would let the majority of the sidewalks between the Dolphin Hotel and the Boardwalk area fall apart and fail and then go out and replace them all at one time. That would be efficient, but it wouldn’t be lovable.

We can have nice things, we just need to shift our priorities. A Strong Town is well-maintained. Maintenance isn’t glamorous, but doing it expertly must not only be an obsession, it has to be a prerequisite for even considering an expansion of what we have. If it’s not, why bother?