Why not add murals to this tunnel at Court House Metro? Image by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

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 the top of this post. 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?

This mural livens up the walk in and out of the U Street Metro station.  Image by T. Gonzalves licensed under Creative Commons.

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.

There was just no need to leave this underpass wall in Capitol Hill blank. Image by Miki J used with permission.

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.

This post originally ran in 2010, but since the idea is still great, we wanted to share it again!

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and an adjunct professor at George Washington University. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado and lives in Trinidad, DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post. Dan blogs to express personal views, and does not take part in GGWash's political endorsement decisions.