At a moment when some city dwellers are moving to less populated areas, The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) reads like a love letter to all things urban, an invitation to look a little longer at the design stories that have changed how cities work.
The illustrated guide is the first book by co-authors Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt, creator and producer of popular design podcast 99% Invisible. In short, encyclopedic entries that cover everything from manhole covers to mansard roofs, rotary junctions to the inflatable figures at car dealerships, The 99% Invisible City tells the stories of designs that have shaped the urban landscape.
This is not a guide to a specific city, but to the various elements common in urban environments around the world. The book, which Mars and Kohlstedt began thinking about more than five years ago and began working on in earnest in 2017, was mostly completed by the time COVID-19 transformed how we interact with each other and the built environment. But the project couldn’t be better timed. “Unlike a travel guide, you don’t have to fly to Florence with this book, but can use it to explore your own surroundings even while social distancing,” says Kohlstedt. There’s a podcast episode where they do that—using the book as a guide to explore downtown Oakland, where the podcast is based.
The 99% Invisible City is full of interesting factoids about the built world. Some favorites: Edward N. Hines, credited with creating the first road centerlines, had the idea when, according to anecdote, he was driving behind a leaking milk truck that left visible white dashes along the road. There’s the catchy song that helped Swedes remember to drive on the right side of the road when the country switched driving sides in 1967. Niche societies devoted to specific elements of the urban everyday also make some appearances. The usefulness of roundabouts is extolled by the UK Roundabout Appreciation Society. Preservation efforts for steel stretcher bars, used during World War II and upcycled afterwards into railings across London, are the domain of none other than the Stretcher Railing Society. If you’ve ever noticed stamps or plates with the name of a contractor on the sidewalk, there’s a Chicago municipal law to thank for that. The merits of different city flags are discussed, from Pocatello, Idaho’s sorry click-and-drag “Proud to Be Pocatello
The layout of the book, which moves through different categories of the urban environment, from the inconspicuous to larger systems like infrastructure, is also intentional. It’s meant to first help readers notice how things work, says Kohlstedt, so that by the end, you’ll know “how you can become involved in your own city, or at least understand who is doing what and why more clearly.”
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 crosswalks that lead from the street to the sidewalk, are the result of hard-won organizing and direct action by disability rights group the Rolling Quads, who through direct action, protest, and legislative appeal brought the first curb cuts program to Berkeley, California in 1971. Necessary not only for wheelchair users to move around independently, curb ramps have also benefited many other people, like bicyclists and people pushing strollers.
The book concludes with issues in urbanism that sometimes pit city residents against each other. Several snapshots discuss “hostile design,” or “defensive architecture,” the term for design strategies that restrict how marginalized residents can use public space, like the decoy bicycle racks installed below an underpass in Seattle meant to prevent unhoused people from sleeping there. At the crux of these issues is the relationship between design and power, a lens that could have been centered more throughout the book. For a guide to the ideas and practices that have shaped how cities look, for example, neglecting discriminatory practices like redlining seems like a significant omission. Overall, The 99% Invisible City, like its parent podcast, has an optimistic take on design. Design is framed as a discipline that tends to improve quality of life, rather than a discipline that can implement the very foundations of inequality.
This general optimism about design is precisely what makes the book, like the podcast, so engaging. I could use a little faith in the collaborative efforts of humankind to generate things that benefit all of us. And I don’t just mean the liquid-repellent wall paint deployed in a part of Hamburg plagued by revellers who consider the world their bathroom (the walls were labelled, “Don’t Pee Here! We Pee Back”). I mean the city, as a hectic whole—the city as a curious thing we can, collectively, keep trying to make safer, happier, and more equitable.
“Ideally, this book will leave readers seeing cities differently,” says Kohlstedt. “It’s not about any one specific story, but about the process of becoming more observant and inquisitive, and celebrating the small and quirky details that build up to our entire experiences of built environments.”
And that starts with my next walk through my own neighborhood. v