Photo by flickr user Jukie Bot

How To Make Urban Markup Language Suck A Little Less

If you spend some time in an urban environment, chances are you’ll notice colorful lines, arrows, and symbols spray painted on the pavement. (See above photo for reference.) I spent years of my life wondering who put them there and why without feeling particularly compelled to look it up. Since moving to Berkeley, though, the Krylon web has never felt more inescapable to me. A combination of curiosity and distaste for the markings led me to write about them today.

In America, it turns out these symbols are a government-sanctioned code used by public works officials to signify the presence of subterranean infrastructures or label sites of intended construction and excavation. I imagine they serve a similar purpose in other countries, but for the remainder of this post I will refer to the American conventions. A nationwide color scheme has been established to help protect construction workers and civilians from disastrous accidents.

Key by Columbia’s Studio-X Blog
A version of the above code was first implemented in California after construction workers accidentally cut through a petroleum pipeline in 1976, resulting in a fatal explosion that destroyed half a city block.
(Smithsonian Magazine)

The code has become such a huge part of the American urban landscape that people have nicknamed it “Urban Markup Language.” There’s an entire flickr group with more than 900 photos dedicated to capturing urban markup language in the wild. It plays an invaluable role in preventing fires and explosions.

Defining the Problem

But, in my opinion, it kind of sucks. Though it’s been reasonably effective thus far, I take issue with two aspects of the code:

  1. Urban Markup Language uses an impermanent medium to denote structures underground that are all but permanent.
  2. Urban Markup Language, despite following specified guidelines, is often inconsistent, noisy, and ugly.

While the latter might be a matter of personal preference, I find the former quite confounding. The question of the day is: How might we design a system whereby Urban Markup Language utilizes a more permanent and less noisy medium to denote subterranean structures?

A natural solution

Plants, in addition to living practically indefinitely, display a wide array of colors throughout the year. They are also impressively distinct across species and consistent within species. So once I defined my question for today, plants immediately sprung to mind as a possible medium for demarcating areas containing public works infrastructure.

Some obvious constraints came up right away, including seasonality and climate. With this in mind, I developed an example key of plants and the structures they represent. The illustrations and descriptions appear below:

As I added the descriptions to each plant, I noticed that pink and white represent temporary things. It would certainly be counterproductive to use a living thing to represent a temporary message. But I’d already done the illustrations for those plants and I didn’t want my work to go to waste. Let’s just consider them 2 more colors on our palette we can use to represent other types of public works structures.

But there’s this one problem.

You can’t plant a tree in the middle of a street. The plant-based system might be useful for sidewalks, but spray paint gives much more location-specific information for wide stretches of road.

The problem remains, though, that spray paint does not last as long as the underground structures. I’d therefore like to propose that the structures be represented in the road itself. For example, a red material like brick can be laid directly into the road to represent powerlines. The entry and exit points from the street can be marked with the trees from the key. An example of how this might look with red maples and brick is below (pardon the hasty illustration.)


This idea turned out to be much more labor intensive than I’d originally anticipated (the illustrations took forever.) However, since a goal of this project is to create delightful experiences, I’m quite pleased of the notion that a city’s flora does not need to be at odds with its urban-ness.

As far as feasibility is concerned, there are certainly cost constraints I didn’t consider. I also failed to take into account the variation between cities of pavement layouts. It could very well be that some cities do not have the green space to use plants to signify public works landmarks this close to the street. Nonetheless, I believe identifying the potential for a greener, more permanent, and more sustainable medium than Krylon is an important first step toward a more elegantly designed city.