ROADS AND ROSES: The Functional and Cultural Importance of Design and Beauty

In 1912 nearly 23,000 immigrant mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, led by a multi-ethnic coalition of the city’s women, walked off their jobs to protest yet another pay cut.  With the help of the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World (IWW – the “Wobblies”), they fought not only for better wages and working conditions but for respect and a better life – for beauty in the ways most meaningful to them.  As the famous song phrases it: “Give us bread, but give us roses too.”

We need to have the same demands of our transportation systems – not just the vehicles (cars, trains, buses) that are our immediate focus of attention and use but also the corridors and buildings.  While some of our transportation infrastructure is privately owned -- and the current Republican-run federal government seems eager to expand that percentage – most of it is public land, owned collectively by ourselves as a “public right of way” to preserve our ability to move and assemble without restriction.


The corridors through which we move ourselves and the things we need, as well as the structures that facilitate our use of those corridors, take up a huge amount of physical space.  We are in or around our transportation system a huge amount of time. Transportation is one of the defining characteristics of civilization.  It’s more than a ubiquitous netting holding up our daily activity.  To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s insight about architecture:  we shape our transportation system and afterwards our transportation system shapes us.

Least important but most noticed and most often the object of controversy are the often large “stand-alone” sculptures, paintings, and installations that sometimes seem as much about supporting the arts community (and artists) as about adorning the public space.  Sometimes, art is integrated into the physical structure, like the fabulous history and photography panels in the Ruggles Street MBTA station.  Most important but usually least discussed by the general public (although the intense focus of  landscape and building architects) is the aesthetic quality of the surrounding landscape and the physical structure itself including both the surfaces and the spaces they enclose.  Finally, and perhaps least open to aesthetic changes, is the nature of the travel surface itself – the pavement, tracks, and other vehicular underpinnings.

Because there is always someone ready to denounce any “unnecessary” spending on public projects as a waste of taxpayer dollars, we need to remember why the “look and feel” of a road corridor, railroad station, highway rest stop, and even a parking lot is important.  Good design improves usability.  It entices us to pay more attention to our surroundings, thereby increasing safety.  Aesthetic enjoyment improves our own feelings of well-being, perhaps even happiness, and can nudge us towards more positive interaction with others.  And as an expression of our common bonds, public spaces should make us feel good and therefore proud of being part of society, motivating us to be more active citizens – the bedrock of democracy.



Improved usability -- There is utility in beauty and visa versa.  Interstate highway signs, the product of countless research about shape, color, size, and location, are highly functional with a minimalist kind of beauty.  But, like minimalist art, they are soulless – which may be appropriate for signs containing vital information that needs to be instantly readable while you drive past at high speed.  However, there are other aspects of a roadway or its surroundings that are appropriate places for more artful treatment.

Maintaining alertness – At one time or another, most of us have had highway amnesia, arriving somewhere after a long trip and realizing we barely remember driving there.  We’d been on auto-pilot, our minds only partly focused on the road.  But, in fact, the more we notice what is going on around us the safer we are, on city streets as much as highways.  In the name of keeping drivers’ eyes on the road, we have treated cars as blinders, blocking our sight and attention from everything else around us. But maybe a little shift in a different direction would be beneficial:  one way to maintain attentiveness is to make things pleasing to look at, even if it’s just in passing. 

Enjoying being there -- Steve Jobs is considered a genius because he understood that good design allows buyers and users to both easily use and emotionally enjoy their purchases.  When our rivers were polluted we built bridges with high walls to block out the view.  Today, after years of clean-up, we want to open things up.  In the past, we sat in our cars as if they were shields protecting us from the ugly and non-social space we rushed through. Today, we value the busyness of urban life.  Future driverless or shared vehicles will give additional opportunities to look around.  In addition, as car congestion, climate concerns, and the growing popularity of higher density urban areas pushes policy-makers to encourage both walking and bicycle, people’s relationship with their surroundings will become more intimate and sensory than in a speeding car with the windows up, AC and radio humming.  It’s even possible that positive aesthetic experience reduces road rage by reducing tension and encouraging friendly interactions.  Good spaces make for good experiences and good relationships.

Good public spaces promote democracy – There are reasons that trust in government and the democratic values it operationalizes is at historic lows.  People have lost confidence in our ability to find effective solutions to our problems in ways that also strengthen our social and political bonds, our sense of community and common interests.   One way to reverse this dangerous trend is to improve the functioning and attractiveness of public spaces – including our transportation system.  It is important that people feel good about being in public spaces.  Every part of our built environment embodies and projects a social message – public facilities should welcome people, serve their needs, and make them feel proud to be an owner.  In these troubled times when authoritarian solutions seem attractive to so many, our democracy needs all the reinforcement it can get.



In recent years MassDOT has developed a progressive and nationally leading set of policies.  The challenge, as with so many issues, is interpretation, prioritization, and funding.  Moving forward would require an expansion to our roadways of the current MBTA “Percent for Art” program that uses up to 0.05% of construction funds for stations and other facilities to pay for temporary and permanent art displays.  It would also require bringing in more outside artists and landscape architects to provide suggestions for the design of transportation facilities of every kind.  Design needs to precede engineering, or at least they shouldn’t be treated as competing forces.

Every MassDOT project has to have a Standard Scope of Work document, several sections of which have indirect aesthetic implications.  Section 100 (Project Development Engineering) requires the consideration of “existing and known future land uses, transportation facilities, cultural resources, natural resources, and other factors that may influence the proposed project.”  Section 420 (Landscaping and Plan Preparation) says that review comments – presumably gathered through the public input process – should be taken into account when developing “planting locations and species” plans.  The theme is that landscape elements need to provide both beautification and performance characteristics that address storm water run-off, heat-island effects, habitat and other functional benefits.

Much more detailed guidance is provided in Chapter 13 (Landscape and Aesthetics) of MassDOT’s Project Development and Design Guide.  Section 13.1 states that “The goal of roadway landscape design is to integrate the road into the landscape context …by …(1) protection of natural and cultural resources, (2) restoration and rehabilitation of landscapes damaged or compromised by transportation improvements, and (3) enhancement of the corridor such that it becomes not merely a functional facility, but a community asset ….There may be locally significant elements – pathways, architectural details, monuments, groves of trees – that may not meet regulatory thresholds, but may support adjacent ecosystems, or define the atmosphere of a village or town ….[and] enhance the visual quality of the roadway corridor. Project planning and design should seek to preserve and protect existing plants, important cultural features, and ecosystems that make up the corridor.”

Just as important, MassDOT’s Landscape Design Section reviews every project design.  However, this small group has a huge workload and, by necessity, focuses on planting issues although, as one MassDOT person told me, “these reviews also provide us with an opportunity to comment on bigger issues that deal with the overall look and feel of each project…lighting, placement of street furniture, surface treatments, sight lines, etc.”



As Steve Jobs understood, design shapes the relationship between an object (or service) and its users.  The built environment, our transportation system included, is shaped as much by design as by function, as groups like the Boston Society of Architects repeatedly emphasize.  Unfortunately, driven by cost-saving pressures, we tend to inadequately investigate the best method of serving the latter and invest little creativity in the former. 

It shouldn’t cost money to make things look good, but having a dedicated source of funding would certainly help buy needed expertise and cover possible costs.  Nationally, 27 states and territories have a "Percent for Art" program that provides some small percentage of the cost of various kinds of construction or renovation projects for art. In Massachusetts, the city of Cambridge has its own percent for public art program, as does the MBTA, which budgets half a percent of its station costs for public art.   A state version – applicable only in Boston and the Gateway Cities – was passed at the end of the Patrick Administration providing 0.5% of state building project costs, up to $250,000 per project.  But no money was ever appropriated and Governor Baker vetoed the Legislature’s next proposal, submitted by Senator Eric Lessor (D-Longmeadow) which would expand the program to the entire state.

However the Legislature and Administration resolve their differences in size and procedure for the program, and even if they include transportation facilities, it will probably be restricted to stand-alone art – welcome adornments but not the same thing as integrating aesthetics into the functional structure, spaces, and surfaces of the work.  At a minimum, even stand-alone art can be integrated into the structure – for example, the Providence, Rhode Island’s R-Line bus shelters include panels designed by local artists.

MassDOT – and municipalities as well – need to find ways to go beyond and deeper than their current staffing levels and Guidance documents allow.  They need to explore ways of getting architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, planning, and artist groups to provide input on project designs both during the conceptual stage and at the various review checkpoints – 25%, 75%, etc.  Perhaps one or more landscape architecture, artists, and engineering groups could work with MassDOT to co-sponsor a series of workshops or conferences to delve into this area.

As a public asset – in aggregate much larger and no less important than the forests and prairies the new Administration also seems eager to privatize – our transportation systems need to be treated as more than purely utilitarian tools or profit-making opportunities.  A road corridor may never be a temple of nature, waiting for John Muir to describe or Ansel Adams to photograph.  Still, we need to demand more of it than simply letting us pass through. We need to insist that transportation facilities be treated as places in their own right and treated in ways that, as Lady Bird Johnson said in opposition to highway billboards, “Beautify America.”  

Beauty is not truth.  And we can all survive even in an ugly world.  But why would we want to?  Especially when it might be possible to find joy in the things around us.  Why can’t we make getting there part of the fun?


Thanks to Tom DiPaolo, David Gamble, and Senator Eric Lessor, for information or feedback on earlier drafts.


Related Previous Posts:

> THE ART OF TRANSPORTATION (and urban) PLANNING: Going Beyond the Technical Specs

> THREE LEGS OF A HEALTHY BUILT ENVIRONMENT: Smart Growth, Active Transportation, Human-Scale Architecture 

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