At a moment when some city dwellers are moving to less populated areas, The 99% Invisible City: A Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) reads like a love letter to all things urban, an invitation, a look at it to throw a little longer at the design stories that have changed the way cities work.
The illustrated guide is the first book by co-authors Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt, creator and producer of the popular design podcast 99% Invisible. In short, encyclopedic entries that cover everything from manhole covers to mansard roofs, turnstiles to inflatable figures at car dealerships. The 99% Invisible City tells the story of designs that have shaped the urban landscape.
This is not a guide to any particular city, but rather to the various elements common in urban settings around the world. The book, which Mars and Kohlstedt thought about more than five years ago and worked seriously in 2017, was largely completed when COVID-19 changed the way we interact with each other and the built environment. But the project couldn’t be better on time. “In contrast to a travel guide, you don’t have to fly to Florence with this book, you can use it to explore your own surroundings, even if you distance yourself socially,” says Kohlstedt. There’s a podcast episode they do that – by using the book as a guide to exploring downtown Oakland, which is where the podcast is located.
The 99% invisible city is full of interesting facts about the built world. Some favorites: Edward N. Hines, credited with creating the first road centerlines, got the idea when, according to anecdote, he was driving behind a leaky milk truck that left visible white lines along the road. There’s that catchy song that helped Swedes remember driving on the right side of the road when the country switched drivers side in 1967. Niche societies that devote themselves to certain elements of everyday urban life are also appearing. The usefulness of roundabouts is recognized by the UK Roundabout Appreciation Society. The conservation efforts for steel stretchers used during World War II and subsequently upcycled in railings across London are the domain of none other than the Stretcher Railing Society. If you’ve ever noticed postage stamps or signs with a contractor’s name on the sidewalk, there’s a Chicago city law that you must thank for it. The merits of various city flags are discussed, from Pocatello, Idaho’s sad click and drag “Proud to Be Pocatello ™” to Chicago’s admirably simple but distinctive design.
The layout of the book, moving through different categories of the urban environment, from unobtrusive to larger systems like infrastructure, is also intentional. It should first help the readers to recognize how it works, says Kohlstedt, so that in the end you will know “how you can get involved in your own city or at least better understand who is doing what and why”.
While some elements of the urban environment are the products of individual designers and inventors, others represent the cumulative work of generations of designers and the results of collective action. Curb cuts, for example the small ramps at zebra crossings that lead from the street to the sidewalk, are the result of a hard-won organization and direct action by the disability rights group Rolling Quads, which has appealed through direct action, protest and appeal The first program to cut Curbs in Berkeley, California, in 1971. Not just for wheelchair users who need to move independently, but also for many other people, such as cyclists and people pushing strollers.
The book closes with questions of urban planning, on which city residents sometimes compete against each other. Several snapshots deal with “hostile design” or “defensive architecture,” the term used for design strategies that limit the use of public space by marginalized residents, such as decoy bike racks installed under an underpass in Seattle to prevent people from living out of their homes sleep there. At the heart of these issues is the relationship between design and performance, a lens that could be more centered throughout the book. For example, for a guide to the ideas and practices that have shaped the appearance of cities, neglecting discriminatory practices such as redlining appears to be a significant loophole. Overall, like its parent podcast, The 99% Invisible City is optimistic about the design. Design is defined as a discipline that tends to improve the quality of life, rather than a discipline that can implement the fundamentals of inequality.
This general optimism about design is exactly what makes the book, like the podcast, so engaging. I could use a little trust in human collaboration to generate things that benefit us all. And by that I don’t just mean the liquid-repellent wall paint that is used in part of Hamburg and is plagued by night owls who see the world as their bathroom (the walls were marked with “Don’t Pee Here! We Pee Back”). I mean the city as a hectic whole – the city as a strange thing that we can continue to try to make safer, happier and more just together.
“Ideally, this book lets readers see cities differently,” says Kohlstedt. “It’s not about a specific story, it’s about becoming more attentive, curious, and celebrating the small and quirky details that affect our overall experience with built environments.”
And that starts with my next walk through my own neighborhood. v