One of the most basic tenets of good urban design is that walkways should be lined with things to look at.
Blank walls discourage walking because they make a walk seem boring and therefore longer, and because empty and lightly maintained spaces feel less safe. Detailed, colorful places are inherently more pedestrian friendly than dismal, blank spaces, and therefore urbanistically superior.
So, given that, why do we accept so many blank spaces in our cities?
Take a look at the photo at right. It shows a walkway under Wilson Boulevard leading to Court House Metro station. The walkway isn’t much longer than the street is wide, but walking through it is a pretty dismal experience. It feels like such a long and dangerous walk that few people use the tunnel.
Sprucing it up would almost certainly increase usage, and could potentially lead to higher Metro ridership. Better lighting and some mirrors would help, of course, but what about a little art? Why not cover each wall with a series of colorful murals?
There is no need for any such project to be expensive or logistically challenging. Every high school in America is filled with art students who would love a chance to show off their skills publicly. Metro could work out a deal with a local school: Give each art student one concrete panel and let them go wild, as part of a class project. Coordinate with teachers to make sure murals turn out appropriate to the public (and if one doesn’t, 10 minutes and a bucket of white paint solve that problem). For practically no cost, Metro would dramatically improve the user experience at this station. If it leads to even a modest rider increase, the project would pay for itself.
How many other places around the region would benefit from a similar project? Any city resident can probably think of 10 blank walls somewhere in their neighborhood. It seems the only reason they can’t be improved is that nobody bothers to do so.
Of course it is true that Metro and the city at large have bigger problems than a few blank walls, but this is low-hanging fruit. It will take long, hard work to solve Metro’s systemic maintenance and safety problems, but this is something that would positively influence the system and could be accomplished with nothing but a few hours of coordination and the cost of paint.
Let’s do it.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.