Personal Responsibility for the Public Good: From Boulevard Trees to Schools
by Jerome F. Winzig
In recent years, many new boulevard trees--planted in our neighborhood and elsewhere to replace stately old trees lost to Dutch Elm disease--are suffering from neglect. Some of the young trees die in the first year or two because no one waters them. Some are surrounded by uncut shoots springing from the base of the tree. Others have low-lying branches that haven't been trimmed as they grow beyond the sapling stage. Still others have broken dead branches that dangle for years after a storm.
Some think the city ought to send workers to water and trim the young trees. In dry summers, a city water truck occasionally appears in an attempt to save some of the youngest trees. But with 180,000 boulevard trees within the city limits of Minneapolis alone, it's clearly not practical for the city to regularly trim and water every young tree.
One wonders how people think our Minneapolis urban forest was grown 75 to 100 years ago, with its distinctive cathedral look lining block after block throughout the city. It seems as though many people do not understand that the public good requires personal responsibility.
Some older residents seem to know. They run their garden hoses out to the boulevard and let water trickle down to the trees' roots. They carefully prune the lower branches each year as the trees grow taller. They cut off any shoots that sprout from the roots or low on the trunk. If a smaller branch is broken, they bring out a ladder and saw to trim away the damage. Some even call the city for permission to plant an extra tree on their boulevard.
But many others do none of these things. The trees on their boulevard, which one day will shade their homes and yards, languish and sometimes die. If they do die, some call to complain and demand replacement trees. If they're lucky and rain is plentiful, the new trees survive, albeit smaller than they could be. But uncut shoots sometimes grow three or four feet high. Low-hanging branches grow large and hang over the sidewalks.
This neglect of the public good by private citizens occurs elsewhere. Litter surrounds many convenience stores--wrappers, paper and plastic cups, and soda pop containers, but neither the stores' patrons or owners seem to care. Some neighborhood residents rake their leaves into the alley, where they lie rotting all winter long. When someone throws a beer bottle on a street or sidewalk, sometimes no one who lives nearby picks up the broken glass for weeks.
This lack of care is not trivial. Left to continue, it begins to extend to other, more significant aspects of our civil lives. It also leads to a misguided conviction that someone else--preferably the government--should assume responsibility for the problem.
This month, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the state of California for neglecting certain public schools in California. At the press conference announcing the lawsuit, a spokesperson for the ALCU cited the example of a school where a rat lay dead and decomposing where students could see it in the school gymnasium for over a year.
During the news report on the lawsuit, the acting superintendent for the Los Angeles school district, which is responsible for many of the neglected schools, voiced his support for the lawsuit. A principal of one of the neglected schools also appeared, and bewailed the fact that his school was built in 1939 and was too old and poorly maintained.
Instead of blaming the state, which helps to fund but does not run the schools, why aren't the plaintiffs holding the superintendent or school board accountable? Even more to the point, why not hold the people closest to the problem responsible? What kind of a principal tolerates an environment that leaves dead rats lying around? Why would a custodian ignore the rat for a year? How could a physical education teacher fail to remove a dead rat from their gym and not take steps to address an obvious rodent problem? Wouldn't at least one student complain to one sympathetic teacher who could personally remove the rat?
Other questions come to mind. Why is the school building that was constructed in 1939 such a problem? Many school buildings across the nation are older than that, and are still well-maintained, usable structures. Does the principal not speak up? Do the superintendent and school board fail to listen? Do parents ever express concern?
It is strange to hear the acting superintendent of the Los Angeles public schools talk about suing the state of California to fix the schools he is responsible for running. But it sounds quite similar to those who refuse to water the trees in front of their homes and then demand that the city replace the dead trees.
Ultimately, everything that is important comes down to personal responsibility, or lack thereof. Blaming someone else for problems is a refusal to accept responsibility. Failing to take small personal steps to fix local problems is a refusal to accept responsibility.
Once this becomes a habit, it is beyond the power of government to address. If each of us fails to assume personal responsibility for the public good, then streets become a mess, schools fall into disrepair, kids go unparented, neighborhoods deteriorate, and evil flourishes.
More money won't fix this. More government programs won't help. Nor will another lawsuit. Instead, the solution starts with each one of us, individually and collectively.