Walk through your town to gain a better perspective of the job your public works department is doing.
Photo: Jenni Spinner Walk through your town to gain a better perspective of the job your public works department is doing.

How often do you get out to see your town? I'm not talking about the chunk whizzing by as you drive to your office, or the pieces you glimpse as you traverse your garbage collection route. Have you ever left the comfort of your office or truck cab to get out to take a good look at the town you serve? If you haven't, you're not getting the big-picture view—the one your constituents see on a daily basis.

The next time the weather cooperates and delivers a sunny day, put on your best pair of sneakers and take a stroll around the town you work in. You'd be amazed how much more detail your eyes pick up than when they're shielded by a glass window. As my friend Dawn, an avid runner, says, “You see more of the world when your feet are right on top of it.” With your dogs pounding the pavement, your eyes will pick up details you couldn't gather from behind the wheel or at your desk.

I decided to follow Dawn's healthy example and take up walking (I'm working my way up to running, but I'm not quite there yet). I like variety, so I visit a few different towns within easy striking distance of my suburban Chicago apartment. From the first time I laced up my Nikes and set out, I noticed a vast number of things about the neighborhoods I ran through that I would never notice from inside my car—some of these things might be interesting, if not downright surprising, to the public works directors in charge.

For example, the sidewalks between my apartment and the local library are in amazingly good condition. Save for a square of concrete broken up by the roots of one homeowner's ancient, dominating oak tree, there are hardly any cracks or buckles for my shoes to trip on during my walks. My local public works department deserves a pat on the back for taking such good care of the concrete that I and my neighbors are walking on.

The streets, however, are a different story. On most residential streets around my humble abode, I couldn't run on the asphalt—there are too many potholes marring the way. Crews sometimes come through and fill said holes with cold-mix asphalt, but it never seems to last—more of it sticks to my car the first time I drive over it than sticks to the street. The larger potholes are significant enough to shake passing cars that don't steer clear, but the smaller ones (like the one I neglected to hop over the other morning) present a danger to the feet and ankles. If an elderly neighbor were to stumble and hurt herself after encountering one of these holes, her trip to the emergency room could be followed immediately by a trip to her lawyer to file a lawsuit against the city for not taking adequate care of the street.

One town I frequent does a good job on all counts—good enough to make it worth the short drive necessary to get there. The sidewalks are in tiptop shape. The streets are well-lit and well-maintained. In addition, the town is crisscrossed by easily accessible, well-marked bike and running paths, all of which wind through beautiful wooded areas. All of these factors add up to create an image and environment that makes the town more enjoyable and livable.

If your constituents are like most towns' residents, they will approach you with problems and concerns, but they may not be telling you everything. If nothing else, stepping out will help you gain perspective on the work you do. Taking a walk isn't just good for your heart—it's good for your job.