The Babylon of Box Blight

Will a new distribution center in Market Square keep our papers in order?

Some things don't belong on the sidewalk. Litter, sleeping drunks, and dog poop, for example. Then there are things that do. You expect them. Mailboxes, benches, and newspaper boxes are part of that. They make life better. They give us something we need. They've always been there and that's okay.

But things change. Phone booths are hardly on the list of sidewalk amenities one expects anymore. We don't need them like we used to. And though it's nice that they're not cluttering things up, I sometimes wish we still had them so that I wouldn't have to wonder whether the person walking toward me and talking is on the phone or off his meds. But like I said, things change.

Take newspaper boxes. They've been a part of the streetscape for as long as I can remember. But somewhere along the line something started to happen. Alongside our old standbys started to appear another kind of publication. Then, like kudzu, they started to take over. I'm not talking about daily, weekly or monthly newspapers, but the invasion of so-called shopper's guides. You know the ones. They're essentially pages of ads for apartments for rent, automobiles for sale, or real estate.

They usually set up next to a newspaper box and, like plastic parasites, begin their reproductive cycle. One begets another until we end up with chains of plastic mushrooms made of the same bright colored plastic as playground equipment.

You see the same publications in racks at the supermarket and well beyond downtown. But their publishers favor concentrating them here for a couple of reasons: There's a lot of pedestrian traffic, and the real estate's free.

Knoxville is far from the only downtown facing this problem. Cities across America know ugly when they see it. But the First Amendment cuts many ways, and controlling the problem hasn't been an easy task. Splitting hairs on who can and can't distribute their message is dicey. And more than one city has found itself before the courts accused of curbing freedom as an unexpected consequence of trying to curb blight.

But part of what a city owes to its denizens is to maintain some sort of control over the environment. Unfettered placement of distribution boxes shouldn't be any different. And, across America, local governments are finding ways to ensure an even playing field for free speech while managing the public's right to use its space as it sees fit. Letting advertisers bully their way onto our sidewalks with plastic boxes is no different than allowing billboards downtown.

A lot of vision and effort has gone into rebuilding our downtown the way we want. We have Downtown Design Guidelines to ensure that developers meet our goals (and we've found financial tools to help make sure they meet theirs). One of those goals is a pleasing streetscape. And since it's our room, we ought to get to pick the furniture.

Knoxville is about to take another cautious step toward that end by implementing a pilot program to manage distribution box sprawl. Following the lead in other cities, the administration has been working in voluntary cooperation with the News Sentinel and other publications to place the city's first unified distribution center on the southern end of Market Square, hopefully replacing the string of existing boxes with a cleaner, less unsightly look. If the program goes well, the city is looking to expand it downtown.

Notice the hopefully and the if in the last paragraph. Right now Knoxville has no ordinances or restrictions on placement of publication distribution boxes. It was never a problem until it became a problem. And the planned strategy relies on self-regulation by our publishers. If that cooperation can't be reached to the extent that it actually delivers results, there are alternatives. The city has already examined legislation in various other cities that has stood the test of challenge. And there's no reason we can't enact similar ordinances here if needed.

In places I've visited that have successfully mitigated box blight, free publications such as Metro Pulse sit side-by-side with the same dignity as the dailies. And many of the shopper's guides remain available as well. No one gets completely shut out of the game. There are just some new rules. I expect the same here.

On the other hand, if the distribution facility planned for the Square starts to attract multicolored warts of prepackaged litter like our other newspaper boxes downtown, we'll be right back where we are now.

It would be nice to see the city get control of our sidewalks. It's enjoyable to sit on a bench, read a newspaper, and sip a cup of coffee. Then, when you're done, to be able to walk down a pleasant, uncluttered sidewalk. Except for the occasional litter, sleeping drunk, and dog poop, that is.