Public works isn’t just about projects. It’s about marketing.

Here’s my theory. Ever since English settlers landed in North Carolina 400 years ago, we’ve concentrated on building the infrastructure networks that make a huge continent like ours work. In the last decades of the last century, we spent a lot of time and effort fixing the consequences of tremendous economic growth.

If we thought that was tough, guess again.

Now the really hard work begins: wheedling, cajoling, and otherwise convincing the public and powers that be to maintain, upgrade, and integrate these assets. In addition to translating complex engineering and regulatory concepts into plain English, you have to make public works exciting, “transparent,” and “sustainable.”

Over time, engineering has become secondary to education.

That’s why the American Public Works Association (APWA) convention showcased so many examples of sophisticated (and expensive) marketing campaigns. They're powerful because they insinuate that investing in these activities is in residents’ best interest if they want to live in a community with decent property values.

Public agencies have always had to sell their projects. Branding like the City of Richfield, Minn. (pop. 35,000), multimedia, multiplatform Sweet Streets campaign is the next step.

The $42,000 spent so far not only explains what’s being done and why, but also how funding differs from the past and why that’s important to the average Joe.

As this award application explains, there have been challenges. But overall, I give this public works department an A for branding.

I didn't keep my promise of sharing five more things, but I felt this was important to discuss. Feel free to share your opinion by e-mailing