There’s a viral video that started appearing in my feed about Baltimore’s Mr. Trash Wheel. The wheel itself is a clever piece of engineering, but perhaps the even better story is how a city came to love this device and anthropomorphize it as one of their own adorable citizens.
In 2009, a Baltimore non-profit with buy-in from the city announced a goal of making the harbor swimmable by 2020. They quickly realized that no big federal, state or city infrastructure projects would be approved and built in time to get the job done so quickly. So they started looking for the next smallest step. They planted wetlands, then oyster beds, then John Kellett, a concerned local citizen invented what would become Mr. Trash Wheel.
Mr. Trash Wheel was installed in May 2014 and as public interest increased the non-profit started working with a local ad agency called What Works Studio to capitalize on the good PR. Initially the googley eyes were only added digitally. Then as a Halloween stunt towards the end of October 2015 they gave the structure real, but temporary, eyes. They were such a hit that the people petitioned the Healthy Harbor Initiative to keep them. They’ve now become permanent and Mr. Trash Wheel’s transformation from boring public infrastructure to beloved city icon seems complete.
Mr. Trash Wheel’s public persona is so powerful now that he is being used as a voice to help fund-raise for additional water cleaning wheels and harbor improvements.
The lessons are ones I love to repeat:
- No one is coming to save you or your community. Federal, State and Locally financed programs are too big and slow to create meaningful change until after you’re already well under way solving the problem yourself.
- Incrementalism is the only financially sustainable way to improve a place.
- We keep (and do more of) what we love. Loveable places and things get preserved and enhanced. The un-loveable is destined to be wasted no matter how well intentioned.