Roman Mars Explores The Hidden Stories In Your City

16:42 minutes

a blue paint circle badge with words in white that say "best of 2020"On a walk through your city or town, there are all sorts of sights and sounds to take in—big buildings, parks and patches of green space, roaring vehicles, and people strolling around. But according to Roman Mars, host of the 99% Invisible podcast, you need to look at the smaller, often unseen details to decode what’s really going on in the city. 

In the new book The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design, co-authors Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt show that you can learn a lot about the place you live in by taking a closer look at tucked-away architecture and pavement markings. There’s meaning behind the etchings on the covers of maintenance holes and water lines, and the cryptic spray painted symbols on the street that signify network and telecommunication cables. These signs and structures can tell stories about a city’s past and present. Ira chats with Mars about the overlooked details built into our cities and how our urban environments are adapting to the pandemic.

Further Reading

  • Read the new book, The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design.
  • Listen to episodes and read stories on 99% Invisible.
  • Learn more about hidden infrastructures and spotting telecom lines in New York City in Ingrid Burrington’s Seeing Networks project and illustrated guide.

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Segment Guests

Roman Mars

Roman Mars is host of the 99% Invisible podcast and co-author of The 99 Percent Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020). He’s based in East Bay, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday, I’m Ira Flatow. If you take a walk through your city, your town, you probably take in what’s going on around you. The big buildings, the parks, the patches of green space, the people buzzing around. But my next guest says, to really decode the history, and what really is going on in the city, you need to look at the smaller, almost invisible details, like the manhole covers, the cryptic markings on the pavement where to dig, and, well, where not to dig. And lots, lots more.

So here to talk about some of these unseen clues built right into our cities, and how those environments adapt to change, Roman Mars, host of the 99% Invisible podcast, co-author of the book The 99% Invisible City, a field guide to the hidden world of everyday design. Roman, welcome to Science Friday.

ROMAN MARS: Thank you so much. It’s my pleasure to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Thanks to have you. Just a reminder that this conversation is being recorded in front of a live Zoom audience. And we want to hear your questions. We want to know from you what hidden parts of your city have you discovered that you think people have overlooked. Or has there been a detail or a feature of your city that you’ve noticed and wondered why it was there? You can give us a little bit of what you think in our live Zoom audience, and we will try to answer some of those questions, as many as we can get to in conversation.

So let me begin with you, Roman, and ask you– in your podcast and your book, you unearth all these little, unseen details. Why are you so interested in cities?

ROMAN MARS: Well, I like cities because they’re what brings us together. So I use the built world as a lens to talk about who we are as people, and what our values are, and what we’re prioritizing in a given moment. And a city is this partly designed, partly kludgy ad hoc collection of all the things that we do and value when we’re trying to live together. And in that sense, it’s a really good artifact to talk about who we are as humans.

IRA FLATOW: Do you remember David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work books? Were you influenced by them at all? They were terrific.

ROMAN MARS: That and Connections and all these sorts of things. I love all that stuff. I was raised on that, which I’m sure that’s why I am the way I am.

IRA FLATOW: Do people find you staring at things in the city as you walk around, looking and saying, what is that guy doing?

ROMAN MARS: Yeah. Especially, I like sidewalk stamps a lot, which are often like contractor stamps or little placards that tell you about an easement of some kind. I like to crouch down and take pictures of those. And I’m a big plaque reader. I’m a big believer in reading plaques, even if plaques are not always telling you the best story or the accurate story. I still think it’s important to read as many as you can.

IRA FLATOW: Well, tell me about a little bit about your history. Before 99% Invisible, you were in school to become a scientist. You were studying population genetics. Does your science background help you decode all these things that you’re looking at?

ROMAN MARS: I think that the same brain that made me interested in science, to understand the hidden processes at work, made me love genetics, and it also makes me love design and thinking about these things. I mean, there’s a different force at work, different types of intent at work. But I still like to use the critical eye of science to explain things. And I often use and think about metaphors of ecosystem when I think and talk about cities. It really is a complex ecosystem with some adaptive parts, and some non-adaptive parts, and vestigial organs that are sitting out there, and all kinds of things. And it is a really good metaphor to explain cities.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s get into some of these details, because I found your book extremely fascinating. It spoke to me as another geeky person who likes to look at cities. For example, you look at the Holland Tunnel. For those of us in New York, we try to speed through it as fast as we can. But you looked at the ventilation system. And in fact, because I’ve looked at these over the years, the facade of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel air shaft in Brooklyn is used as the headquarters of the film Men in Black. I remember when I saw that, I said, wait a minute, I’ve seen that real life.

ROMAN MARS: What I love about that, in particular, was how much effort, at that time period, was to make this piece of very functional infrastructure into something that was striking. In and of itself is something that represents how we were thinking of infrastructure at the time, whereas, I think that today, an equivalent structure would be pretty utilitarian, and would never serve as the headquarters of Men in Black. And that’s one of the things I love to mark.

One of the ways that you can mark in our architecture is how we feel about government at different times. And there was a period of time when all these state capitals went up and in the early 20th century. And they have domes, and they have gold on them, and they’re this busy filigree, and they’re the Beaux-Arts style.

And then later on, you see them as being very functional, very modernist, very square, and there was no waste. And there was no notion that you had to put on a ton of gilded edges to represent us, to say that government represents the best of us. And it’s no, no, you have to save money. And so I love these little moments.

And those structures being so grand and so interesting tells you something about what they thought of the Holland Tunnel at the time. Was that it was an amazing achievement, and it should be reflected in the architecture, that it is an amazing achievement. And that’s what I like about that story.

IRA FLATOW: One of my favorite stories in your book is something that we folks in the New York area can relate to. And it’s the story of the can opener. A bridge in Durham, North Carolina that was not tall enough to let all the trucks pass under, hence they lose their tops when trying to get through, they get can opened.

We have that in the New York City area all the time, because we have the old– not before the super highways, we had the parkways. And they have overpasses that are not big enough to allow a truck to get in. And you mentioned this in your book is that, no matter how much signage they put up on the roads, trucks still just ignore them, don’t see them, whatever. And that’s what happened with the can opener, right?

ROMAN MARS: This bridge in Durham, North Carolina was it was a real problem, because it was just low enough that people driving trucks thought they could make it. And it was so consistently a problem that a fellow in a nearby office building just set up a camera. And he would he would take a video of it. And they put him up online. And if you go to like 11foot8.com, you can watch videos of the tops being scraped off of trucks.

And the problem was– it’s really a problem of bureaucracy. So the signs didn’t work. And I think about this a lot if I’m driving a truck, or I rent a truck, and I go to a drive-thru, and it says it’s only like nine foot eight, or something like that. I’m like, well, I don’t know what height of this truck is. It’s a sort of thing you sort of naturally internalize.

But the problem is that each sort of part was owned by a different constituency. So the overpass was owned by the railroads, the area underneath the road was owned by the city. And no one could really take responsibility enough to fix it. Because, as you can imagine, to raise an overpass for a train, you have to actually do the grade really, really far out. And so it cost way too much money.

And there was too much like important sewage underneath to lower the road. And no matter what they did with the signs, it didn’t work. And then, finally, they did raise it a little bit. And somebody took some responsibility. But it still causes problems, but there are still accidents. Doesn’t matter.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Because you say in the book, when infrastructure works, it is the physical embodiment of amazing things we can make when we work together. And when it fails, it reveals the cracks in the system where we can improve. And that’s exactly the kind of thing you were talking about. Let’s go to our first listener question. Let’s go to Meg Summerfield from Rockville, Maryland. Hi, Meg, you’re up next. What is your question?

MEG SUMMERFIELD: Hi, I was wondering– and thanks for taking my question– what is your favorite hidden small park or garden in a major city. And is there any particular period in history when there were remarkable or smaller parks or gardens developed in large cities in the US?

IRA FLATOW: Good question, yeah.

ROMAN MARS: Yeah, it’s an excellent question. This is always hard for me, because I really do like– a little, charming park really works on me, extremely well. And one of the phenomenons here in the Bay Area, and I know that there are analogs in other places, are these things called POPOS, we call them. They’re privately owned public spaces.

And in order for somebody to enclose a space to have a building the way it is, it has to be allowed to have some public use. And so they’re privately operated, but they’re known to be public. And so they’re these little, tiny pockets that are sometimes in a breezeway or on a roof. And you have to use the access of an elevator to get to it. But it’s meant to operate in public. And so they have a special signage here in the Bay Area.

And I like exploring those in particular. Because I think that this notion of what is public and what is private is worth exploring for all of us. When you don’t use rights, you lose them. And if something is a public park, you should try to treat it as a public park. Parks are a huge representation of our value, and how we trust people in public spaces. And they’re fascinating to watch for that reason.

IRA FLATOW: Meg, my vote goes to Savannah, Georgia. Just go to Savannah. There are two or two dozen cute, little square public parks that are beyond description. They’re just so beautiful to walk through, and to play around in, and have incredible historical value. Let’s talk about people in cities and how they’re going to need to adapt.

The pandemic has really turned everything we know about how we live in cities upside down. Do you think we’re going to have permanent structures, symbols, signage, infrastructures, for example? Might we see a sign with a face mask on it now? Like you might see a stop sign. You need to wear a face mask in this spot, you need to have social distancing in this spot. We’ll come up with this signage. Ventilation systems changing, elevators, staircases, all that kind of stuff.

ROMAN MARS: I think ventilation will be a huge one. I think that there’ll be a focus on making ventilation. I think there’ll be a huge focus on making spaces and homes more versatile. Because I record podcasts in my home, my kids are in the next room doing classes. We need more walls in this place. If I was looking for my next house, I would be thinking about the versatility of a space if pandemics are part of our life to continue. And there’s a lot of people that think that they might be.

Elevators are the weirdest form of public transit that people don’t consider public transit that I’m really interested in. Because this is a tiny box that were with people. And there was a real change in architecture when the Otis self-breaking elevator was invented. Before the elevator was popular and safe, the top floor of a building was the worst floor. No one wanted to do that. They had to climb all these stairs. And if you were rich and you wanted the nicest place, you were on the first floor.

And now, because we have to distance ourselves, if we have to wait a long time to get in an elevator, and if it takes like 15 minutes to get to the top floor, the top floor might not be as desirable anymore. And that sort of value of what place you are in a building might change. Maybe buildings will be shorter. Who knows? There’s all kinds of stuff like that.

The one thing that cropped up a lot during the pandemic that I was interested in was just the markings on the floor. Like the soft infrastructure, soft architecture that showed up. Where to be, how to be socially distant. I have to admit, that was the one I kind of liked. I kind of like being told where to be, and where the line is, and things like that. Because often, if you’re at a deli, and everyone’s surrounding, and no one knows where to do or what to go, it’s nice to have a nice, orderly queue. I’m a big believer in an orderly queue. And if we can use the space in the information layer on the floor to tell us where to stand, I’m all for it.

IRA FLATOW: And have people grabbing at that pastrami, you’ve got to be careful. Let’s get to our next call. Joe Nemec from Sleepy Hollow, Illinois. I know we have Sleepy Hollow in New York. Didn’t know we had it in Illinois. Hi, Joe.

JOE NEMEC: Hi, how are you doing? It’s great to talk to both of you. So I was wondering– in 1992, we had the great Chicago flood. And they had eliminated street parking in the downtown area temporarily. It never really came back that way, and really changed the landscape and the way the downtown worked. I was just wondering, how often do events like that restructure the way city changes?

ROMAN MARS: Well, they certainly can. And one of the things that is just like that that’s pretty common is, once you give somebody access to something, it’s hard to take it away. And I think that that’s going to be another thing about the pandemic, which is going to be really interesting. Because we’re experimenting with our relationship with roads for the first time in 100 years.

I mean, roads weren’t just the domain of cars for most of their existence. Roads served all kinds of constituencies, including trolley cars. And there were automobiles on them about 100 years ago. There were automobiles, trolley cars, people, horses, all kinds of things. And then we just gave them over to cars.

And now that we need socially distant space outside, more cities are experimenting with the idea of having cafes extend out into the road, and close down roads for periods of time just for restaurants, and make little parks, and make little places where we can gather. Because we do need to be together, even if we’re being safe and being apart. And I think that this next phase of experimenting with how we use city space, and how we prioritize, more like park and open public space for pedestrians over cars will be a really interesting time.

And we’ve seen this before. There were experiments in Bogota in the 60s and 70s that led to people basically taking over streets for periods of times. And in Barcelona, there were all kinds of experiments in the 90s to make a safer space of these super blocks, where only the outside was available to cars, and the inside was all used for pedestrians. And I think that experimentation will continue, especially in the current moment.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. In case you’re just joining us, we’re talking with Roman Mars, host of the podcast 99% Invisible, co-author of the book The 99% Invisible City, a field guide to the hidden world of everyday design. Do you think that, though, for this all to work, that people have to buy in to the changes? They have to agree that these are useful, they’ll have to be politically active to get their representatives to spend the money on it.

ROMAN MARS: Yeah, I think so. I think we learned that you don’t necessarily have to spend a ton of money on it. Like in Times Square, you could start by putting out some folding chairs, and then have people begin to take it. And then it becomes codified. And then it becomes habit. And then people have the strength and political wherewithal to make it a rule.

But I think that what I would love to see is that cities borrow from the guerrilla activists that mess with this infrastructure, and play with it a little bit by making pocket parks, and making parklets. And they use that to try things out. And when they do, and when their constituency likes it– and I think that people will find that they have the force and the ability to make some of that permanent.

But also, maybe permanent isn’t the most important thing. And just being nimble and reactive is worth it. And I think the magnitude of what is happening here with COVID gives people the will. You become a little bit unanchored from the norm. And it allows people some freedom to experiment and try stuff out. It’ll be interesting to see what sticks.

IRA FLATOW: Unfortunately we have run out of time. I want to thank you, Roman.

ROMAN MARS: Thank you so much, I had a pleasure being here.

IRA FLATOW: Roman Mars is the host of the podcast 99% Invisible and co-author of the book The 99% Invisible City, a field guide to the hidden world of everyday design. And you can watch the entire video of this interview, and sign up to find out about sitting in on future Zoom interviews, all there on our website at sciencefriday.com/events.

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