Let's Make Treatment Plants Beautiful - Just As We Do For Fire Stations

Should treatment plants be tucked away in corners in muted colors? Or put on display, decorated, celebrated? Here’s an argument for bright and bold.

There’s a scene in the trailer for the movie Psycho where director Alfred Hitchcock gives a tour of a small house. On the way down a hall he pauses, points to a door and says, dismissively, “Bathroom.” As in, no need to look in there. And we don’t get to.

Sometimes I think communities (OK, not all) similarly dismiss their wastewater treatment plants. They’re outside town, on the end of a road, behind a chain link fence, with a humble, well-worn wooden sign out front. Meanwhile, the fire station sits in the middle of town, with nice architecture, a manicured lawn, colorful flowers, neat shrubbery, maybe an antique fire engine on display, everything spotless.

Now, I get why the fire station needs to be in the city center. I get why the clean-water plant often lies on the outskirts (it discharges to a river, which is at a low point; wastewater flows by gravity). In other words, there are practical and engineering considerations. But why are these facilities often (again, not always) deliberately hidden, nondescript?

Reason to celebrate

I suppose the reasons are obvious, but that doesn’t make them good. In my assorted professional travels and in my time editing this magazine, I’ve seen some beautiful treatment plants. I’ve seen others considerably less attractive — almost universally well kept but strictly utilitarian in their appearance.

In my humble opinion, every clean-water plant should be beautiful. To allow anything less is to debase the facility’s function, the professionals who work there and their importance to the community. The treatment plant, even if away from town, should look as good as the firehouse. How else will citizens see fit to grant it equal stature?

Now, some plants are beautiful out of necessity. A treatment plant is an industrial facility, not naturally compatible with, say, a residential neighborhood. Plants in such areas, or where development nearby is expected, will typically have compatible architecture, attractive landscaping and extensive odor controls.

Doing all that for every plant, including those a couple of miles outside town, or those in industrial areas beside the river, wouldn’t be cost-effective. But that doesn’t mean those plants can’t be beautiful.

It doesn’t take that much

My basic prescription would be: No matter where it’s located, no matter how big or small, treat a clean-water plant as a source of pride. It’s making the river swimmable and fishable. It’s protecting public health. It’s helping the community prosper and grow. So — not just to operators but to community leaders — I’d say, don’t treat it the way Hitchcock treated that bathroom.

Spruce it up. Give the road in a new coat of asphalt. Paint lines in the parking lot. Put up an attractive, colorful sign. Call in a landscape designer. Plant trees. Go crazy with flower gardens. Set out picnic tables. Try a little pond, maybe with a fountain. Put out bird feeders. Grow ivy on the fences. Make the whole setting eye-appealing. Treat it like the community asset it is.

On one of my first visits to a clean-water plant, the manager greeted me with a handshake and said, “Welcome to our plant — we’re proud of it.” Now imagine people in our cities, while driving visitors around town, telling them, “There’s our clean-water plant. We’re proud of it.” Just as they might for city hall, the library or the firehouse. That would be great, wouldn’t it?   


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