A little extra goes a long way
On faux stone veneers, LED bulbs, and what makes a community tick
It has never been cheaper nor easier to add a dollop of ornamentation to just about anything. Tired of vinyl siding? Replace it with a faux stone veneer. Want to upgrade the look of a bus or a trailer? Put a vinyl wrap on it. Need a corporate logo? Someone will prepare a design for as little as $5 or $10.
■ Often, we add little more than just crude ornamentation. There's nothing expressly wrong with that; human beings appear to have been painting in caves for 164,000 years. People were putting graffiti on the walls of Pompeii right up until Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD.
■ But we're also capable of doing much more than just adding some touches of paint here and there. As societies, we're at our best when we integrate forethought with our designs, so that we build things that will not only stand the test of time, but also prove themselves useful beyond mere ornament.
■ A bridge, for example, is one of the most utilitarian of instruments. And in general, we find it wise to illuminate our bridges so that travelers can see their way safely across. But bridges are often utterly plain (even when they're not in disrepair), and nothing looks good when cast in the sickly yellow of a sodium light.
■ It would have been sufficient to illuminate the bridges of Des Moines with those basic HPS lamps -- or even with plain white light coming from energy-efficient LED bulbs. But instead, someone had the foresight to install three of them with programmable technology, permitting the city to light up three high-profile bridges in the yellow and blue of Ukraine.
■ Undoubtedly, those lighting systems cost more than basic illumination. But probably not by much. Just as today's giant flat-screen television costs less in real terms than yesterday's smaller (and picture-inferior) standard definition TV, so too have many other improvements in materials and methods come with affordability advantages, too.
■ When it becomes cheaper to get something of the same quality, the temptation is often there to pursue the cheapest alternative available. But we shouldn't be too quick to always grasp for cost savings first -- even, and perhaps especially, when it comes to public improvements. Sometimes it's better to anchor our expectations not with what superficially appears to be the lowest cost, but rather with capturing some of the savings that often come from the kinds of quality and price improvements that market forces bring us and committing them to building things just a little bit better.
■ How we treat our public spaces does a lot to shape our perceptions of community, and there is no place where this can pay off better than where local communities, at the neighborhood or municipal level, decide not to default just to the cheapest options but rather to perceive of the entire life-cycle value of what they're getting. Sometimes just lighting up a bridge can be the right thing to do.