Last January the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission finished removing trash cans from its public parks. This measure not only helped balance the budget but sought to engage park patrons in the civic-minded practice of cleaning up after themselves. While trash cans have been restored in some parks, the park that is half a block from my house is still part of the grand experiment.
The commission calls its garbage-can removal effort "carry-in, carry-out." The notion is that people using a public space ought to leave it as clean as they found it. A good plan were it not for that niggling little thing known as human nature.
Unfortunately, not all of us are considerate all the time. We speed up at yellow lights, and we take 17 items into the checkout line with a 15-item limit. When no one is looking, sometimes we don't recycle our plastic.
Reading the county's boilerplate about carry-in, carry-out, I picture neighborhood associations picnicking off china dishes with cloth napkins in their laps as they sip lemonade from ceramic mugs. The mugs have rope lanyards attached so that, when empty, they can be hung around the neck. Should these ideal park patrons produce any actual garbage, they deposit it in the tastefully decorated trash barrels brought from home for the purpose.
In the real world, my neighborhood park sits across the street from a community college, and students and staff eat lunch in the park. The asphalt basketball courts are the site of pickup games, and the playground teems with little ones. For a park only blocks from an urban district, mine has an impressive amount of green space, and neighbors use it to play volleyball, walk dogs or just enjoy a nice day.
One and all have the carry-in part of the slogan down pat. It's the carry-out part that's causing problems. So, once a week, I put my son in his stroller and we head to the park where I don latex gloves and fill a bag with other people's trash. On a recent Wednesday, we found 12 flattened cans of Milwaukee's Best; a used diaper; the Styrofoam, plastic and paper remains of takeout Chinese for two; a tennis ball; 14 plastic water bottles; an empty fifth of Thunderbird still in its little paper bag; a toy soldier gone AWOL; pages of wind-blown, rain-soaked newspaper; and dog feces in a neatly knotted plastic bag.
This list, various as it is, indicts all of us who use the park for not fulfilling the lofty aspirations of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. But it indicts the commission, too.
Governments work best when they appeal to citizens' best qualities and help those citizens do the right thing. ("Have trash? Here's a convenient receptacle.") Removing trash cans from public parks encourages us to do our worst instead. We succumb to laziness or forgetfulness, and we leave our trash to be someone else's problem.
It's not so much that I mind cleaning up after others, but it would be nice to have some place to toss my bag and gloves when I am done. After all, it is the park, and when we're done picking up trash, my son, Benjamin, wants a turn on the swings.
-- Jonathan Graham