Stunted Expectations

By Jim McCloskey

Back in 2007, I helped a friend through part of the process of updating the exterior of his five-unit horseshoe of courtyard apartments.  I was mostly there for moral support as he reviewed drawings and sought feedback on features for the common space.

He had a vision – a small bowl fountain toward the back, a large shade tree toward the front, planters throughout and a pair of benches in the middle flanking a patterned-brick medallion.  It all had potential, but step by step he learned what he was getting himself into:  the water-treatment system that would keep the fountain from becoming a disease vector; the special non-slip paving recommended around its basin; the bench blocks that would keep the seating from becoming twin beds for local homeless people; and tree grates intended to keep the courtyard smoothly accessible.

These were just options the contractor felt obliged to discuss (and wisely so), but they were small doses of modern reality that kept adding up both psychologically and financially, taking what my friend had envisioned as a light, simple, tenant-friendly broth and turning it into a thick, costly, rule-spiced gumbo.  What knocked him back hardest was the security system recommended for the tree grates:  The option wasn’t terribly expensive or among the strongest suggestions, but the thought that he would have to lock down these big, heavy things to keep someone from walking away with them was just too much.

After a long discussion with his contractor, he pared back his plan, dumped the tree and the fountain and moved sideways to a nice but commonplace paving system interrupted by a few planters.  Not even the benches survived.

I’ve thought about the grate-locks-that-broke-the-camel’s-back many times in the years since, still trying to get my arms around the absurdity of the need for that kind of security – but then a story like the one recounted below comes along and puts it all into wicked perspective:

This past June, reported the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, thieves interested in scoring some copper raided that city’s Thoroughbred Park, stealing 23 fountain heads from a long waterfeature.  Adding injury to insult, the lack of spray heads apparently caused the fountain system to fail, damaging the pumps in the process.

According to park officials, the cost of restoring the fountain to service would come to about $10,000, although that amount wouldn’t be final until they figured out what was up with the pumps.

It’s hard to consider that we live in times such as these, when basic materials of watershape and landscape composition have become hot commodities in a shady aftermarket.  The crime in Lexington left only a temporary hole in the social fabric of its city, but no municipality can be happy with an expense so despicably incurred.

It makes me concerned for the future:  If fountains become common targets of metal-seeking thieves, how many towns will simply decide that the liability is too great and that waterfeatures subjected to theft will be abandoned or demolished rather than restored?

Stepping back to my friend’s 2007 experience, how many officials, when confronted by the added and sometimes great expense involved in trying to make fountains and waterscapes code-compliant while securing them against theft and vandalism, will simply decide to step away – as my friend did seven years ago – and leave public spaces bereft of the wonderful sights and sounds of water in motion?

It’s a chilling thought – and difficult to see a way past the problem, simply because the metal options cannot easily be replaced and will almost certainly continue to be a temptation.  With that in mind, perhaps it’s time to start exploring alternative materials that are less appealing to larcenous eyes.

Composites, anyone?

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