Monday, March 31, 2014

April Fool’s Day 2014

Urbanism doesn’t necessarily lend itself to practical jokes but, like most realms of human endeavor, it has the potential for quirkiness and whimsy.  That’s close enough for me to offer a quarterly urbanist celebration of April Fool’s Day.  Of course, this quarter I can celebrate the real April Fool’s Day.

In this post, I’ll look at an unusual approach to street lighting, the aromas of a city, the use of a bicycle motif to illuminate urban space, and a couple of non-traditional approaches to crosswalk painting.  I’ll conclude with another look at the infamous North Carolina bridge that continues to exact a stiff cost on unwary truckers.

Montreal Street Lighting: Trying to lighten the mood during the long winters in the northern latitudes, the Avenue du Mont-Royal in Montreal hosted a design competition for wintertime street lighting.  The winner was “Idee-O-rama”, a series of internally illuminated streetlights that look like speech bubbles.  The content provides humorous comments on winter in Montreal.  Come spring, the lights will be removed, but will return for the next two winters.

The Aroma of a City: Some may still complain that cities can sometimes be pungent.  But many 21st century cities, aided immeasurably by improved street design, sewer systems, and air quality standards, are far less odoriferous than the cities of centuries, or even decades, past.

To illustrate from where our noses have come and what olfactory improvements may yet be possible, SPUR, a San Francisco-based urbanism advocacy organization, is hosting an exhibit of urban aromas.  The curators are from the California College of the Arts.  Unfortunately, the exhibit is ending almost as I write this, which means that we missed our chance to smell “Paris 1735” and “New Jersey Turnpike”.

Urban Illumination: One element of urbanism is finding productive and interesting uses for space that would otherwise be wasted.  These imaginative uses serve two functions.  They increase the vitality of the city.  And they improve walkability by reducing uninteresting walks past underused or vacant land uses.

One of the greater drags on urban vitality is the space beneath elevated freeways.  It’s often a dark, dank space through which the occasional pedestrian can only scurry.  But a group in San Antonio is tackling the challenge, fabricating outsized light fixtures out of bicycle components and LEDs.  It’s not a complete solution to the use of land under freeways, but it’s an elegant step in the right direction.

Breaking the Mold on Crosswalks: San Francisco is the most recent city to consider rainbow crosswalks to celebrate its diversity.  Not everyone is happy with the idea, with some noting that the rainbow colors will soon be discolored by gum, trash, and foot traffic.  I concur with their concerns, but applaud the effort to use crosswalks as another element of the urban canvas, adding character to a city.

More to my taste is the work of Roadsworth, a 40-year-old Canadian who has been adding illegal whimsy to crosswalks for more than a decade.  His work is reminiscent of Banksy, the extraordinary graffiti artist who I described in my last quarterly summary of quirkiness.  But Roadsworth, although not without political content, is more content to remain within the realm of delight.

From crosswalks that become flights of geese to double yellow lines that swirl around and into sewer lids, he brings a creative eye to cities.  And the public approval of his work has allowed him to skirt the threat of jail time and heavy fines.

The Bridge is Still Winning: For April Fool’s Day a year ago, I introduced readers to a clearance-challenged bridge in Durham, North Carolina that made a habit of ripping off the roofs of vehicles whose drivers failed to note the multiple warning signs.  Durham Public Works tried the stem the tide of decapitation with new and brighter signage, but the respite in the carnage was short.  The videos are captivating.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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