Discovering the secret language of cities reveals delight, says 99% Invisible host Roman Mars

For the last decade, Roman Mars has been exploring the hidden stories behind architecture and design in his podcast 99% Invisible. He speaks with Nahlah Ayed about how learning to read the secret language of cities reveals reasons for delight all around us, why he sees cities as ‘evolving organisms,’ and how war and disease shape the built environment.

Learning to understand the significance of sidewalk stamps gives you 'this fun kind of X-ray vision.'

For the last decade, Roman Mars has been exploring the hidden stories behind architecture and design. His book The 99% Invisible City is a guide to deciphering the secret language of cities. (

Roman Mars, host of the podcast 99% Invisible, says learning the stories behind roundabouts and sidewalk stamps has taught him how to find delight everywhere — including right outside his front door. 

"The first thing that's delightful right outside my door is my lemon tree. And then beyond that, there's a slope, a curb cut right there at the corner," he told IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed at the Hot Docs Podcast Festival. 

"That seems like an unremarkable object, but it has a huge history that's actually based here in Berkeley where I live."

Ed Roberts, the first quadriplegic student at UC Berkeley, was a driving force behind the widespread adoption of curb cuts, which now exist at intersections around the world. 

Roberts fell in love at Berkeley, and he learned to use a power wheelchair so he could leave his attendant behind on dates

Ed Roberts was a pioneering leader and educator of disability rights and the Independent Living Movement. He believed in the strength of collaborative efforts, calling it “working toward our preferred future.” (Submitted by Ed Roberts Campus)

"I learned how to drive a power wheelchair in one day. I was so motivated … She jumped onto my lap, and we drove off into the sunset —or to the closest motel," Roberts said. 

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But as the 99% Invisible episode Curb Cuts explains, the six inches between the sidewalk and the road were still a major obstacle.   

By that point, Roberts was part of a group of disability activists who called themselves "the Rolling Quads." They got tired of waiting for the built environment to change, and they made it happen themselves.

"It started with an act of guerilla activism, let's say, where they took a sledgehammer and knocked off the edge of a sidewalk and then poured cement to make a basic ramp," said Mars. 

Those night-time "commando raids," conducted by the Rolling Quads and their allies, captured people's attention and built momentum for broader social change. It took years of arguing in front of city councils and advocating for new laws for curb cuts to become standard practice.

StopGap ramps are used to bridge the elevated space that exists between the sidewalks and storefronts. The ramps started as a Toronto project and are now a global movement. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Today, you can see "a little bit of that activism in every corner of a city," according to Mars.

"There's a memorial to that struggle in this little thing that you don't tend to notice. And it's just nice to notice that," he said. 

That is the guiding ethos of 99% Invisible: getting people to notice things they would otherwise walk past without a second thought. 

Learning to 'read' the city as an 'evolving organism' 

Mars's new book, co-authored with 99% Invisible producer Kurt Kohlstedt, is called The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design.

Learning to decipher the squiggles painted on roads or understanding the significance of sidewalk stamps gives you "this fun kind of X-ray vision when it comes to the stuff that's existing below," Mars said. 

When you begin to read it, you realize that a city is really this evolving organism.- Roman Mars

For example, he said, you can trace the evolution of a family-run construction company through its sidewalk stamps. 

"One set in Berkeley that I love is the Schnoor Company, which existed for a very long time. In the oldest neighbourhoods, [the stamps say] Schnoor. And then later neighbourhoods, they say Schnoor and Sons, and then later neighbourhoods, they say Schnoor brothers," he said. 

In Japan, colourfully-designed manhole covers are a nationwide initiative, such as this one in Saitama. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images)

Learning to "read" a city also reveals how it has changed over time. 

"There's a habit that we have as solipsistic humans, [to believe that] that when we enter the world, that's the city that is and should be. And when you begin to read it, you realize that a city is really this evolving organism," Mars said. 

"Sometimes it's hard to accept change in a city … But if you have a long view, you notice that they've never been just one way. So maybe you can accept the change when it comes toward you."

How war and disease shape the built environment 

Throughout history, war and disease have both led to changes in city design. In England, emergency stretchers used during air raids have found a second life as railings in housing estates. In Barcelona, Spain the large blocks in the Eixample neighbourhood were originally built to give people more distance from their neighbourhoods and ward off contagion.

An aerial view of Eixample residencial, a famous urban grid. (Shutterstock)

"Barcelona was historically a small walled city. [It had] small streets, tightly closed together, very, very dense. During various epidemic cycles, people were realizing that it was just unhealthy to be that close together," Mars said. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is already reshaping the built environment. 

Mars said he's fascinated by the "soft architecture" popping up during pandemic, like Plexiglass barriers or the markings telling people where to stand in the grocery store. 

"I hope some version of that stays. I think that we're missing out on using the floor as an information layer of wayfinding and guidance," he said. 

People practice social distancing in white circles in Domino Park, during the COVID-19 pandemic, May 17, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)

"The other thing I think we've noticed is that we need more communal outdoor space with enough distance. That meant taking over bits of the streets … so people could have outside cafes. I think once people realize the pleasures of that, cars might have a harder time coming back on those streets."

The future of enclosed spaces and tall buildings

However, Mars said he worries about how the pandemic will affect the future of public transit. 

"Before all this, people were thinking about public transit in a different way … beginning to think, 'well, maybe it would be better for me to get rid of my car or live in a denser city,'" he said.

"Cities would thrive in that. But being in an enclosed space that you don't control has a different value proposition today. I do wonder if public transit will recover as fast as I hope it will."

He's also curious how the pandemic will affect our relationship with elevators. 

Footprint markers facing in opposite directions and spread apart to show how to socially distance in an elevator in London, England. Roman Mars predicts our changing relationship with elevators during COVID-19, may change the desire to build and live in high-rise buildings. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

"Buildings of multi-storey buildings used to have the opposite value. The best floor was the ground floor, and the upper floors were the bad floors, until Otis's self-braking elevator made that different.

"But if the elevator becomes a place where you're a little more afraid or anxious or you have to go one at a time … how will we view tall buildings after that?" 

Still despite all the articles predicting an exodus from cities as people learn they can work remotely, Mars says he doesn't worry about the long-term viability of cities. 

"Cities are extremely resilient and they've existed for a long time. It is its own sort of organism that is extremely hard to kill," he said.

"People just like being together and there's no way around it."

Two women chat from adjacent park benches amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, in the centre of York, northern England, March 19, 2020. (Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

*This episode was produced by Pauline Holdsworth.

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