Friday, March 19th, 2010

Replay: The Importance of Aesthetics in Transportation Facility Design

As I sat down to write a review of INDOT’s nice 46th St. bridge replacement project in Indianapolis, it occurred to me that a sort of prologue was in order. I often talk about the importance of aesthetics and design identity in roadway design, but have to date not justified why that is something we should care about.

I argue that there are national and regional trends that lead to this, especially in a Midwestern city. These cluster in three groups:

  1. Trends in international economics and culture
  2. Transformation of the public square in American life
  3. Unique Midwestern challenges

As to the first point, we see a number of trends converging. Firstly is the rise of offshore economic production and domestic productivity increases, which have decimated the Midwestern manufacturing base and threaten to bring similar changes to the service sector. This might not seem on the surface to have much to do with transportation aesthetics, but it does. Previously, Midwestern states could rely on participating in a sort of commodity market for manufacturing jobs within a dominant region in a dominant country. That is, the most important determinants of factory location were access to labor and other manufacturers and the cost of doing business. This leads to a strategy of focusing purely on functional efficiency and minimizing cost. The problem is, in a commodity market, the low cost producer wins, and in a global economy with third world labor at pennies per hour and nearly ubiquitous low-cost transportation, the Midwest will never be a low cost producer again, no matter how much cost cutting they do on highway design. This means a more differentiated strategy needs to be pursued.

We also see cultural trends heading this direction. Witness the decline of a homogenized national experience in favor of more specialty, high quality products. Fifteen years ago, Hoosiers got their coffee from the $0.69 bottomless cup at Waffle House. Today they suck down so many $4 lattes that your find Starbucks outlets at interstate highway exits next to the truck stop and Starbucks even put its Midwest headquarters in Indianapolis. In the 1980’s you had your choice of three beers: Miller, Bud, and Coors. Today, the quality and quantity of beers available in even small markets is nothing short of astonishing. There used to be three major TV networks everyone watched. Today there are hundreds of specialized cable networks. If you wanted a good meal in the Midwest, it wasn’t too long ago that you had to hope you were fortunate enough to live in Chicago. Today, virtually every city has a variety of high quality restaurants.

Beyond the general quality explosion and niche markets, we also see the rise of design for its own sake. Today, every product is so sophisticated that it becomes difficult to separate DVD players, etc. based purely on technical criteria. Every new release of Microsoft Word only adds even more new features most users will ever need or care about. What is becoming more and more important is that products simply look cool. The best example of this might be the iPod, which even today is not the most advanced music player on the market. While Apple clearly got the value proposition right, the design of this product played a huge role in its popularity. Starbucks is known as much for the design of their stores as for the actual quality of the coffee. In short, design matters. And the importance of design will only continue to increase over time. This has been well-documented, for example in books like Virginia Postrel’s “The Substance of Style”. (Postrel has a new web publication called Deep Glamour you may want to check out).

To sum up, Midwestern cities cannot rely on traditional commodity approaches in today’s world. Rather, they need to pursue a more differentiated strategy that recognizes key trends like globalization, the rise of niche markets, high quality, and the importance of design.

Beyond these trends, the post-war transformation of American living patterns has changed the entire nature of the public square and the public experience, though this is often unrecognized. Our interstates and primary arteries are our new “Main Streets”. They are our true public spaces and shared experience. The only impression many people will ever have of a place is driving through it on the freeway. What type of impression does your town want to leave? Cities and towns invest millions in aesthetic improvements in their downtowns, downtowns that increasingly are not the locations that shape people’s perception of a place. Too often the places people predominantly see are neglected. This is where aesthetics is really key.

The Midwest also has a particular problem attracting the talent needed to compete in the 21st century economy in most places. Natives get their degrees and leave, and there isn’t enough inflow from elsewhere to make up the difference. This is a result of yet another trend: the mobility of people in our modern society. In today’s world it is as true that jobs follow people as it is that people follow jobs. One reason you see comparatively few life sciences and high technology jobs in the Midwest is the lack of a skilled labor force. The answer is not just to try to lure jobs, but also to try to lure the people.

This is where aesthetics in transportation really comes in. Why is this? The Midwest does not have mountains or an ocean or perfect weather all the time. So its built environment plays a critical role in the overall perception that people have of it. It also has to play a role in making people want to live there.

That’s the key. Cities need to make people want to live in them. As I’ve argued before, no one who is bright, ambitious, and has big plans for themselves will want to live in a place where good enough is good enough. The new economy labor force is going to migrate to places where the civic ambition matches their personal ambition. I believe there is no greater marker of the civic ambition of a place than the design of public spaces and buildings, and transportation facilities are the public space par excellence in our modern society.

Consider Wal-Mart. They understand that design and aesthetics say something important about what they are all about as a company. Wal-Mart could easily afford to make their stores look better. But they don’t. Why? It isn’t just to save money. Rather, they are doing it to send a powerful message to their customer that they don’t care about anything but rock bottom prices. This works for Wal-Mart because that design identity fits with who they are as a company. And fortunately for them, they are the low cost producer in a commodity market, hence their enormous success as a company.

But what if your town is giving off a Wal-Mart vibe but is still far from being a low cost provider, particularly when overseas competition is factored in? That’s the place all too many Midwestern towns can find themselves in. And that’s why designing high quality projects that also provide a sense of design identity for a place is so important.

By the way, this does not necessarily involve spending huge sums of money. For example, I highlighted 15 Quick, Easy, and Cheap Ways to Make a Big Urban Design Impact in Indianapolis in my Pecha Kucha presentation. I believe that if done right, making it look good doesn’t have to cost a lot of extra money. We have to keep two decisions firmly separate in our minds: what do we want? and how can we get that most cost effectively? It can be the case that we have to compromise on what we want in order to live within what we can afford, but let’s make that choice consciously, not by default.

This post originally ran on February 24, 2008.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Transportation

8 Responses to “Replay: The Importance of Aesthetics in Transportation Facility Design”

  1. L. Q. says:

    “Consider Wal-Mart. They understand that design and aesthetics say something important about what they are all about as a company. Wal-Mart could easily afford to make their stores look better. But they don’t. Why?”

    Because our culture stopped giving a damn about aesthetics.

  2. Paul Souders says:

    “The Midwest does not have mountains or an ocean or perfect weather all the time. So its built environment plays a critical role in the overall perception that people have of it.”

    This is spot-on. I’m a transplant from Nebraska (“the Good Life”) to Oregon. Nebraskans take pride in their public institutions and the civic virtues. I often describe Nebraska to my left-coast friends as “a great place to be FROM.” Oregon frequently skates by on its stunning natural beauty and friendly climate. This is why, despite similar per-capita budgets Nebraska has much better public schools, roads, etc. I often despair that Northwesterners lack a civic conscience to match the natural landscape.

    California has learned there’s a point of diminishing returns to resting on the natural environment. I lived a year in Southern California and it was dreadful. Yes we can go to the beach in January but it’s full of garbage and homeless junkies, and it takes 2 hours to drive there (and then: where to PARK?) And the schools, don’t get me started.

    I believe Midwesterners know the value of their region is in its human landscape. Provided they maintain that value, it will ultimately return a dividend as the “beautiful places” fail.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    Wal-Mart’s prefab design probably is just about money. It’s similar to other products marketed as industrially produced and very cheap: the Model T, Levittown houses, McDonald’s hamburgers, Ryanair flights. No-frills isn’t marketing – it’s a philosophy of cutting costs. Within the market, once it saturates itself, companies market themselves on the few frills they do offer, rather than on cost. For examples, JetBlue markets itself on the experience of flying, and Subway markets itself on health and variety.

    I can’t speak for anyone else, or for the Midwest in particular, but when I pass prefab houses or dirty brick buildings, I don’t think they’re intentionally giving low-cost vibes. I think that they’re ugly, and move on. I have to travel pretty far for places with nice buildings. And yet, the local ugliness almost sounds chic nowadays – people learned to love New York, and then they learned to love red brick.

  4. JG says:

    Another default ALON “I disagree with or must correct anything” comment.

    Urbano, you’ve been spot on and I hope openned other’s eyes to the importance of low and modest cost projects such as signage, light post, curbs, and benches. I wish city planning included an office that strictly looked at aesthetics for all projects from those mentioned up to the mega projects. More of an office to make recommendations staffed by someone with direct experience in design rather than something run by a connected flunky owed a political favor.

  5. Alon Levy says:

    Um, how is the observation that even low-cost providers go to great pains to look unique “I must disagree with everything”?

  6. Regine says:

    I often tell people – especially young people – Indiana is one of the worst states to live in. The state is not a place for anyone who has dreams – precisely for the reasons you keep outlining. I tell them to move to a place where people are progressive and inclusive or risk a slow death from mind-numbing boredom. The major problem with the state is the residents, skeptical of ANYTHING unfamiliar, new, frivolous, or controversial are content to subsist on the margins. I’m not sure if this sentiment will ever change.

  7. stunoland says:

    The expansion of the elevated waterfront expressway and spaghetti junction is a perfect example of why design matters. The current plan will squander a historic opportunity to improve the image and marketability of Louisville. Instead of removing the rusty trucks on cinderblock’s in its front yard, Louisville plans to expand and elevate one of the ugliest waterfront expressways in the country. I implore the Urbanophile to make a list of the worst impending urban planning mistakes in the country featuring Louisville’s ORBP. As a resident/entrepreneur who will not live here if this thing is constructed I would appreciate any assistance in preventing Louisville from becoming the only city to expand an elevated waterfront expressway in the 21st century.

  8. stuno, I’d have to do some research on that, but no doubt the ORBP has to be among the biggest impending disasters out there, both fiscally and from a design perspective.

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