Art & Culture

Wild About Art and Urban Infrastructure

By their nature, cities are functional. Streets provide conduits for cars and bicycles, utility and sewer lines weave throughout our buildings, sidewalks and crosswalks create safer corridors for pedestrians. Layered over top of those core functions are the features that make cities attractive and liveable: trees, parks, architectural details, and art. 

When we think about public art, often we think about installations that are separate from the urban environment, added on as afterthoughts once the utilitarian features of an area have been developed. Increasingly, however, there are efforts to reimagine even the most industrial urban infrastructure, turning eyesores into urban attractions.

When it comes to large scale features like building and bridges, urban architecture has generally considered aesthetics alongside function (the Brutalist movement notwithstanding). Added details and flourishes such as the lion statues at the entrance to the Lion’s Gate Bridge in Vancouver, or arched windows in Victorian-era commercial buildings do nothing to enhance the functionality of these structures, but do much to improve our enjoyment of our urban spaces.

Even with the inclusion of these artistic details, functionality often takes precedence over aesthetics when it comes to other types of urban infrastructure such as utility boxes or crosswalks. However, that too is changing.

When was the last time you looked at a manhole cover? In North America, manhole covers—those cast iron plates that cover access points to sewers, typically in roadways—are mostly purposely designed to be ignored. In Japan, on the other hand, these covers have become individualized pieces of colourful art, that may feature everything from flowers to cartoon characters. While not as common, decorative covers can also be found around the world, including on the streets of Seattle and Calgary.

A Japanese manhole cover is decorated with a cartoon firefighter.
Decorative manhole cover in Okayama, Japan by OKJaguar, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Manhole covers aren’t the only piece of utility infrastructure that have been made more visible through art. Many cities have embraced artwork as a way of decorating electrical boxes. These boxes, which were typically painted in neutral tones in an attempt to blend into the environment, are now often decorated with bright artworks or photographs that reflect the local community. A simple design approach that transforms an eyesore into a celebration of community. These boxes from St. John’s, Newfoundland are particularly charming. 

A utility box is decorated with a mural featuring an ocean landscape.
Art by Carolyn Morgan decorates a traffic control box in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Photo by Ian Gidge via The Guardian.

Not every piece of art that’s incorporated into urban infrastructure is intended to disguise less-appealing features. In some cases, adding artistic flourishes makes it easier for us to get around. Decorative crosswalks stand out when compared to their more mundane cousins. Pride crosswalks have become perhaps the most ubiquitous example of creative crosswalks (Happy Pride, y’all!), but numerous other examples exist, ranging from simple black and white piano keys to brightly painted fish. When it comes to crosswalks, adding murals and designs isn’t only about the art. Evidence shows that creative crosswalks cause drivers to be more alert, thus improving safety

A crosswalk is painted with a school of bright yellow and blue fish.
Fish crosswalk in Santiago, Chile. Design by Roadworth via The Guardian.

Art has a role to play when it comes to signage and wayfinding as well. Hand-painted signs were once common in urban environments, but have now been replaced by manufacturing or illuminated signs. However, remnants of these signs can be seen in many cities, where they continue to decorate older buildings. Art can also draw attention to wayfinding signs, where unexpected, brightly coloured signs can guide visitors more effectively than purely functional signage.

Urban environments are where function meets form. Infrastructure supports the ways we live and work within our cities and the aesthetic details are often overlooked. However, there is no reason that even the most utilitarian features can’t be made beautiful, even if we don’t notice them. The next time you’re walking through your neighbourhood, take note of the functional infrastructure—it may be more beautiful than you think.