Minneapolis has taken a load of grief for an initiative to place $50,000 artist-designed drinking fountains at commercial nodes around the city. A big waste of public money, the critics say on talk radio, blog posts and letters to the editor.
Stan Bratt agrees. An avid triathlete who lives near the Mississippi River in south Minneapolis and often trains along the city’s leafy parkways, he thinks more fountains should be put where thirsty walkers, runners and bicyclists can use them. There aren’t enough in the parks now, he said, and too many of the few that exist don’t work well, with low water pressure or broken fittings.
For a city that prides itself on world-class systems of parks and municipal water, that’s a glaring oversight. But maybe the art fountains, along with the mayor’s broader focus on promoting city water, will lead to some improvements. More on that later.
I’m not here to bash the proposed fountains. Their not-inconsiderable cost will be taken from a longstanding city public art fund and the more than $60 million in annual municipal water revenues, not from short-changing other priorities such as street paving or police and fire services.
Furthermore, the fanciful fountains shaped like river mussels, flowers, grass blades and other natural forms hold promise as powerful marketing icons for vital but underappreciated government infrastructure. This is something conservatives should applaud as the city revs up the public sector’s efforts to compete with the Dasanis and Aquafinas of the marketplace.
As we’ve learned, those bottled waters come from municipal supplies at huge markups, packaged in landfill-clogging plastic. Still, they enjoy immense sales. Why? Too many people just don’t value what comes out of their faucets at a tiny fraction of the bottled price. They take it for granted.
Except for brief bouts of algae-induced smelliness (so I’m told; I’ve lived in Minneapolis for nearly 40 years and never noticed anything wrong with my tap water), Minneapolis water stacks up to anything on the supermarket shelf. A $150 million ultrafiltration system and hundreds of daily quality-control tests make sure of that.
In short, municipal water is a huge public-sector success story, reliably delivering a high-quality product without which cities as we know them could barely exist. Why shouldn’t it be promoted in creative ways that boost the reputation of Minneapolis (literally, City of Waters) as an arts-loving community that takes its life-giving water seriously?
That’s the public relations angle, anyway. A few broken-down bubblers along the city’s Grand Rounds parkways wouldn’t detract a great deal from the media-savvy sights of unique and beautiful drinking fountains at busy city intersections. But there would be a nagging disconnect between the two.
Fortunately, there’s hope of rectifying the situation. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s capital funding has been frozen for several years, but there’s talk now of up to $1 million in new money for parks in the 2009 city budget, said board commissioner Carol Kummer.
“Not all of our fountains are working like they used to,” Kummer acknowledged. “But some of them are fairly artistic, because they’re historic.”
She said she would push for some of the park system’s extra funds to be spent on drinking fountains, which in standard designs typically cost $6,000 apiece.
“Why not put drinking fountains where people really need them?” Stan Bratt said. “And it would be great if they had spigots to fill water bottles and for pets.”
Public infrastructure, like water fountains, is key to strong and healthy communities.