Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Who's Responsible for Maintaining Public Space?

Recently I have been spending a lot of time on bike paths.  This past Sunday I did a two hour ride on the Ohlone Bike Path which starts in Berkeley and winds through Albany, El Cerrito and into Richmond.  As I ride along, I notice the scenery, nod to the walkers and bikers coming the other way, and think on what a wonderful part of the commons these paths are.

The bike path in Berkeley provides a glimpse of the median income level of the towns it passes through, and the willingness or ability of the residents to be engaged in maintaining their path.  In Berkeley, various parts of the path are planted with native plants, shrubs are trimmed and the path is free of trash. Some parts of the path even have beautiful murals.  As I moved further north, some parts of the path are beautifully planted, watered and well kept.  Other parts are planted with drought resistant plants, reflecting attention to the chronic water shortage that we have in California.  But some parts are overtaken with invasive fennel or other weeds, and weeds crowd into the path.  In Richmond, the path begins with a creek restoration project which is really lovely, then deteriorates into a path marked on either side by a chain link fence, one side of which is topped with barbed wire.  Richmond is, by and large, much poorer than Berkeley.     

In a “Show Me the Money” training recently, participants argued about how these paths are to be maintained.  All agreed that the government should provide land for these kind of trails and should build them.  One participant, a retired Marine who works with pre-teens who have brushes with the law, felt that the kids he works with should be employed by the county to maintain parks and outdoor areas.  They would learn discipline, they would gain skills, earn some small amount of money, and have fun being outdoors.  Another participant felt that this would mean we always have to have a supply of kids on their way to juvenile hall, and in the long term, this is not what we want.  He felt homeowners should be assessed a small amount which would be put into a pool and evenly divided over all the public outdoor areas so that each town would have nice bike paths and parks.  Another believed it would be best to keep it the way it is:  each community decides how important these areas are to them and maintain in whatever way they can. Why should people who own homes in poor communities have to spend money on bike paths?  Maybe they would prefer to put their money into street lights, or just keep what little money they have.  (He later admitted he doesn’t like to go outside.)

I found myself agreeing with everybody, which meant that I kept changing my mind as the conversation progressed.  What is the role of an individual, a neighborhood or a whole town in creating and maintaining outdoor public space?  If government agencies do all of it, does this decrease creativity?  What if one community wants a mural and the other doesn’t?  What do we do with kids who have few job prospects and go to terrible (and badly maintained) schools to encourage them not to get into the prison pipeline?  And why should people pay for something they have no intention of ever using? 

The reality is that the commons is so large and so important that is has to maintained (in some cases, restored) and upgraded in as many ways as possible.  Volunteers have an important place in taking care of public spaces.  Those same volunteers need to make sure there is enough money in the tax stream for costs that volunteers cannot incur.  And those of us who need a little help with our lives need to find the joy of helping our communities.  But above all, how we decide to keep our public spaces open and accessible to the public will require a certain equality of opportunity for involvement that is sadly missing now.  One participant ended this part of the discussion by saying, “We should be having this conversation with all the people we meet on our bike paths.”  Even our companion who doesn’t like going outside agreed.   “I’ll be having a conversation in the computer bank of the library,” he said.  “It will be almost the same in terms of content.”

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