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CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:
Hey, everyone. It's Cardiff. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. There's an almost endless debate within economics about how much the government should do in the economy versus how much should be left to markets - to, you know, people and businesses using their own private initiative. And in ways that we don't always recognize, that tension ends up shaping the world around us. And I mean that quite literally. The shapes of the buildings we live in and the design of parks and storefronts and of the public spaces we walk through, they are often the result of government policies and regulations clashing with or combining with individuals who are implementing their own creative ideas and creative designs. And maybe nobody knows where to look for examples of this creativity better than Roman Mars.
Roman is the founder and host of the really great Hall of Fame OG podcast, "99% Invisible." And he's the co-author of a new book about these ideas called "The 99% Invisible City." So today on the show, we are speaking with Roman. And he's going to tell us about his favorite examples of people taking the design of their own cities into their own hands. That's right after a quick break.
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GARCIA: Roman Mars, welcome to THE INDICATOR.
ROMAN MARS: Oh, so happy to be here.
GARCIA: Welcome to not your podcast, in other words.
MARS: It's always better when it's someone else's podcast.
GARCIA: So, Roman, why don't you tell us about this theme in your book that there is this never-ending tension between the things that a government has to do for a city - you know, like building a subway line - versus how individuals using their private creativity from the bottom up should contribute themselves to shaping a city and how this tension has all these kind of interesting results.
MARS: Yeah. The whole last chapter of the book is called Urbanism, and it really is about that conversation between top-down designers and bottom-up interventionists. And I love that. I mean, it can be a symbol. Like, sometimes it's really active. There's really people, like, thinking about these things. And there are you know, better design signs on the subway so that people are directed into simpler directions that are more direct, actually, and so much so that they will match the font of the subway lettering and make it seem official. And then there's a little dirt path that cuts across that corner just to get more directly to where you want to go. And once one person does it, they tramp down the grass a little bit, another person does it. And then it becomes a path that you can see, and it reinforces. And desire paths are a huge indicator of the types of ways that people use a city and why it is often different than how people design a city.
GARCIA: Yeah. And there's some examples in your book about kind of mischievous operations where citizens kind of took city design into their own hands, might have cut a few corners, broken a few laws. Do you have a favorite one that you'd like to share?
MARS: Yeah. So, I mean, one of the simple ones that happened sort of based here in the Bay Area, where I'm from, are the idea of parklets and PARK(ing) Day. So, you know, this is an effort to, like, to recognize that we devote a ton of space in cities to parking of cars. And they're often not used. And so some enterprising people came up with this idea that they would, you know, feed the meter of a parking space, but instead of parking a car there, they would put down sod. They would put down chairs. They'd maybe make a little tiny miniature golf course.
And they would make a statement of this space is valuable, and we can use it for other things and not just for cars. And it uses, you know, the apparatus of the city like, you know, being able to rent a parking space and use it towards sort of unintended goals. And that's a pretty simple one. And it's so popular. And it kind of has some delight in its mischief that the city adopted it. And it's like it's an OK thing. There are other examples that are less so...
MARS: ...Like not as sanctioned.
GARCIA: Oh, give us one of those. Yeah.
MARS: Yeah. This is one that I love but is not recommended. So there's a story in the book - and we told this on the show too - of the artist, Richard Ankrom. And he noticed that he was always sort of missing his turn off the 110 because there wasn't a good sign that showed that there was an exit there. And so he studied the California municipal uniform traffic control devices standards for how to make a sign. And he made an actual sign, an exit sign that he wanted. On the morning of August 5, 2001, he actually, like, hung off of an overpass and installed this phony sign that was so real that nobody noticed it for like a year (laughter). And then when the authorities did know it - when Caltrans did - when they were tipped off to it, they inspected it. And it conformed to their standards so much so that they left it up for another decade.
GARCIA: I just love the idea that this guy broke the laws to make the design better and did such a good job that it went from being unsanctioned to totally cool. Yeah, leave it up.
MARS: But what is not totally cool - and I have to stress this - is hanging over a highway, you know, in the morning with like - I just can totally picture him dropping a wrench and hurting someone. And it terrifies me as like a father. I can like picture this, you know, like, this sort of like moment. So like, as much as I kind of love the result of this one, I have to caution people to not, you know, hang off of a highway with a really large, heavy sign and a wrench and try to do this on your own. It's just not recommended.
GARCIA: Fair enough. And, Roman, the aim of your podcast, your book, all your work is to sort of unveil these hidden, interesting designs that are so easy for most of us to overlook. So what advice would you give to people so that when they're walking through their own cities or visiting another city, they can, like, start spotting these things themselves and maybe see the world a little bit the way that you see it?
MARS: I mean, the first thing to do is walk. I love walking. I think it's good to get out there and explore the landscape and just slow down. The other thing, the first sort of layer to look at is this information layer that's written on the landscape like the sidewalk stamps and the plaques and stuff. There's actual words there for you to read. You don't have to really interpret them or know much. You just have to be able to read. And there's so much richness and fun stuff when it comes to just plaques and markers. And then, you know, the words on sewage gradings and the words on sidewalks, stamps and graffiti, those are the things. I would go out there as a reader first, and then you can explore deeper.
GARCIA: What a great answer. Yeah. It reminds me of the manhole covers chapter in your book.
MARS: Yeah. I mean, I love manhole covers. There's good U.S. municipal design and stuff. But what puts almost every country to shame are the manhole covers of Japan because they were specifically meant to exalt in the glory of municipal water systems. Like they were trying to expand, they were trying to modernize, and they knew it would cost a lot of money. And so different municipalities put beautiful pictures on their manhole covers just to sort of like, say, you know, this thing, this modern marvel that we have right underneath our feet? It's amazing, and it's worth paying for, and we're going to put pretty pictures on it to remind you of that.
GARCIA: I love that. It's also kind of a reminder that beautiful design or interesting design does not have to be in conflict with something that's functional, something that's meant to be strictly, like, utilitarian. You know what I mean? You can have both things.
MARS: Absolutely. You can have both things. You can balance them both. I like to think about design as problem solving more than aesthetics, but you can always present things as beautiful and functional at the same time. It's one of the great joys is a really beautiful functional object. Like, the Golden Gate Bridge is like a perfect example of this to me. It's like there's something about that that's really, really special.
GARCIA: Roman Mars, thank you so much.
MARS: Oh, thank you for having me. I had a great time.
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GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Jamila Huxtable and fact-checked by Sean Saldana. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
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