The Current

Roman Mars spotlights cool urban design elements in his book The 99% Invisible City

In his podcast 99% Invisible, Roman Mars tells the fascinating backstories of everyday things that we may not give a second thought, from barbed wire to a plaque on a bench. He's spun that out into his book The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design.

As lockdown measures keep us indoors, let’s marvel at the everyday things within our community: podcast host

Podcast host Roman Mars describes his book as a field guide to the 'cool stories behind everyday things that are right outside your doorstep,' such as statues and plaques. (Brian Morris/CBC)

Story Transcript

Originally published on Jan. 11, 2021.

Roman Mars didn't have the COVID-19 pandemic in mind when he first pitched the idea of a book that explores the origins and stories of things that make cities work.

But as the pandemic and lockdown measures became bigger parts of people's lives, his book, The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design, became a "strange book of the moment."

"In this moment when we can't go to far-flung cities and other countries and marvel at the cool things that they have there, you really can look at the everyday things right outside your door and marvel at those instead," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

The book, which he co-authored with Kurt Kohlstedt, is based on his podcast 99% Invisible, which explores and exposes some of the overlooked aspects of design and architecture from around the world. The book hit stores this past October.

The cover of Mars's book The 99% Invisible City. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

He says the podcast, which launched in 2010 as a collaborative project between San Francisco public radio station KALW and the American Institute of Architects, encourages listeners to notice the good design choices "made by usually smart people to make our lives better."

"It's a lovely way to navigate the world because it's really easy to get caught up in the bad design and the things that aren't working and ignore the 99 per cent of things that are working really well for you and making life better," he said.

He called his book a field guide to the "cool stories behind everyday things that are right outside your doorstep." It shines a light on some of the unsung heroes of a good urban environment, from power grids and fire escapes to drinking fountains and street signs.

Plaques and statues

One group of items Mars addresses are historical markers such as statues, monuments and plaques.

Plaques in particular can be found anywhere from the sides of buildings and homes to on park benches. And Mars says it's always worth reading the tidbits of information etched on them.

"There's an information layer about the built world that's sitting right there in front of you," he said. "They just tell you something to get you started and get you intrigued."

Mars says plaques, such as this one commemorating scientist Ignaz Phillip Semmelweis in Vienna, Austria, are always worth reading — and interrogating. (Alex Halada/AFP via Getty Images)

But Mars emphasized that they must be recognized as "a reflection of the time that the plaque was erected, rather than the time that they're depicting."

"[For example], a lot of the Civil War monuments in the American South were erected in the 1920s and '30s as a tool of oppression, even though they're commemorating a time in the 1860s," he said.

Nonetheless, Mars believes they should be used as a gateway to research.

"They're worth interrogating," he said. "You should always read the plaque, but you shouldn't always believe everything on the plaque."

Voting with your feet

Historical markers aren't the only design details people have used to spark public conversations. Another way people have done so is through desire paths, which are typically created by foot traffic following a path other than the paved trail.

"When somebody sees that piece of grass tramped down, they also tramp down on it, and it sort of creates this dirt path," he said.

Mars says these paths are an example of "people voting with their feet" and an "intersection and a conversation" about how a public space was designed, versus how it's used.

"It's worth paying attention to desire paths because we could learn how to use those spaces better if we pay attention to people that use them," he said.

Toronto's raccoon war

Not every design detail was born of human-to-human interactions; some focus on our interactions with other animals.

Take Toronto's raccoon-proof compost bins, which were rolled out by the city in 2016 as a way to prevent raccoons from pillaging through residents' food waste. 

Toronto director of collections and litter operations declared at the time that "there's not a raccoon that's gotten into it yet." But some residents said the animals were able to dislodge the bin's special raccoon-proof lock just enough to open it.

In his book, Mars highlights the latch on Toronto's green bins, which were designed to prevent raccoons from pillaging through residents' compost waste. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Mars says the evolution of raccoon-proof technology tells a story about our values and our war with these animals that have thrived in our cities.

"It's a nice sort of cold war of escalation of the arms race" between humans and raccoons, he said. "So to me that is hilarious."

Looking ahead

Unsurprisingly, Mars has spent time in the pandemic noticing some of the changes that have been implemented as a result of social distancing and lockdown measures, from Plexiglas panes in stores to pieces of tape on the floor that guide consumers where to stand in line.

As the world continues to battle the coronavirus, Mars wonders what the place of COVID-inspired design choices such as Plexiglas will be in a post-pandemic world. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

He says he was surprised at how quickly many of these changes were implemented, and is interested in seeing what sticks in a pre-pandemic world. 

But as cities across the world continue to deal with the pandemic, Mars says it's important for people to recognize that there are a lot of things working in your favour, "even when things in the world seem broken."

"Cities have always been through lots of changes, and I do think that cities will survive," he said. 

"I think it resets my mind a little bit to think about the care that goes into making the world.... I've become a much more optimistic person through the production of this show just because of that; just noticing that people care, they're trying hard and they're making stuff and they're making stuff for me."


Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Idella Sturino.

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