Sprucing Up Treatment Plants to Promote Positive Public Perception

If you want the treatment plant team to have ‘firefighter status,’ then it helps to make the plant look just as good as the firehouse.

If you had to describe a hierarchy for public officials’ status among community residents, firefighters would be near the top; water and wastewater treatment operators would be near the bottom.

That’s not to say such rankings are justified, that’s just how it happens to be in many if not most cases. In the past, this column has promoted The Fire Chief Project, with two aims:

  • Raise operators to the status of the fire chief
  • Make kids grow up wanting to be operators

Visual appeal

There are a variety of steps to take toward making that happen. One of them is to make the treatment plant look as good (or almost as good) as the firehouse. Think about it for a moment. In a typical community, the firehouse is in the middle of town, an architecturally attractive building with a manicured landscape, flower beds, maybe a display of a restored antique fire engine behind glass.

Meanwhile, the treatment plant sits at the end of a road outside of town, or in an industrial area next to the river, likely surrounded by a chain-link fence. A sign with the facility name routed into plain boards is all that greets visitors.

Of course, this is a stereotype, and not really a fair one. Some treatment plants have strong visual appeal, reflecting the community’s vision and the operators’ pride. And not every firehouse is a showpiece — some are simply nondescript buildings with big garage doors.

A simple fact remains, though: Many water and wastewater plants could use a lot of sprucing up. The regular PlantScapes article in TPO encourages that. Over the years we’ve featured plants that added murals, gardens, tree plantings, walking paths and various other amenities.

Natural settings

When it comes to beautifying, treatment plants have some natural advantages and some built-in challenges. One key challenge is dealing, in many cases, with a site that is outside the normal traffic flow and out of the public eye, and wouldn’t attract much attention no matter how attractively landscaped.

One natural advantage is that plants often have large properties that lend themselves to ambitious projects like arboretums, prairie plantings and boardwalks alongside neighboring rivers or marshes for birdwatching and wildlife viewing.

This month’s PlantScapes article describes how the operators of the Philips Street Water Treatment Plant near Kokomo, Indiana, created a field of native grasses, wildflowers and trees to attract nesting birds and other wild creatures.

Why it matters

Of course, even the simplest aesthetic improvements take time and money, both in short supply these days. Fire departments, it could be argued, have the advantage of “free” labor — the firefighters can work on the landscape during hours at the station not dedicated to activities like training and equipment maintenance. Water and wastewater plants don’t have that luxury.

An alternative is to engage with a local garden club, high school FFA chapter or other community group to revitalize the grounds. Outside of that, a strong argument can be made for the community to invest in site plant improvements.

It’s well known that water and wastewater plants need periodic upgrades, along with continued investment for maintenance. There often comes a time when the community must ask residents for a rate increase to cover those expenses.

Getting approval is much easier if the public sees the water or wastewater plant as an essential facility that supports high quality of life. An attractive facility — even if rarely seen except when public groups or school classes take tours — adds to the perception that the service being provided is indispensable and deserves financial support.

Tell your story

What have you done, in ways big or small, to improve the appearance of your facility? What challenges did you face? Where did you find the funds? Who did the actual work? Tell about your experiences in an email to editor@tpomag.com. We’ll report them in a future issue.


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