Exploring The 99% Invisible City

Roman Mars:
This is the 99% Invisible City. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
For the first time in a long time, I’m in our office in beautiful downtown Oakland, California. A couple of people actually still work here. Two people can occupy the space without violating any social distancing guidelines. There’s two entrances. There’s two different bathrooms. There’s two different kitchens. I usually work at home, but today I’m here because our first book, The 99% Invisible City, has just been released into the world. Since it’s a guide to the city, with stories and histories of the seemingly mundane things around you, my co-author, Kurt Kohlstedt, and I are going to use it to explore all the everyday objects right outside our own headquarters.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
But before we even leave the office, just looking at the window, there’s a brick building next door. And the tops of its walls are dotted with a bunch of square metal plates. These anchor plates are a few inches across. They’re pretty thin and they’re spun in a bunch of different orientations. So, even though they’re painted to blend in with the brick, once you notice them, they kinda stand out. You can think of them like giant washers with bolts or rods tying them into the bricks and helping brace them against the facade. These ones happen to be square, but I’ve seen others in the neighborhood that are round or octagonal. In fact, anchor plates like this are pretty common in the Bay area, in part for seismic reasons. They help make sure that loose bricks don’t fall off buildings and hurt people during earthquakes. These particular ones are way up high, where the walls overrun the roof. There’s a parapet up there where the bricks can’t be braced against the main building. And so someone installed these and connected them to metal braces on the rooftop that you can’t actually see from below. In other places, though, you can see anchor plates all the way down a facade. In those cases, they have a ton of work to do. They help hold up entire masonry walls that might otherwise be at risk of total collapse. In the book, we have an illustration with a bunch of different shapes that you can look out for in whatever city you are in. There are squares and circles and stars and other geometric forms, but there are also some really ornate ones like this huge curving S-shape that holds up an old stone wall in Europe. But whether they look good or not so good, they’ve got a job to do, and they all look better than the alternative, which would be, of course, a pile of stones or bricks.

Roman Mars:
If you walk outside of our building and look back, you will see a beautiful, black, ornate fire escape. I love that we have a fire escape on our building. I know a couple people on the staff, they climb out on it and they watch the city at night. I never do that because I’m a big chicken. Fire has long been one of the greatest existential threats to a building and its occupants, but fire escapes became widespread kind of late in the game. Back in the 1700s, fire escapes weren’t built-in features, but rather mobile ladders on carts hauled to blazes by firemen. Other solutions for escaping a fire in a multi-story building in the 1800s included parachute hats. I think you could imagine both how those looked and how they did not work at all. There was even this widely circulated plan that proposed that if there was a fire, that archers from the ground would shoot arrows with ropes attached to them for residents on the upper floors to shimmy down. But eventually, we settled on iron fire escapes attached permanently to a building’s facade.

Roman Mars:
Fire escapes are, thankfully, not used very often but unfortunately, this also means that they can fall into disrepair, especially if a landlord is prone to cutting corners. The infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 people in 1911, was a national tragedy that spurred a lot of change in terms of workers’ rights. But it also made people look closely at how we need safe and plentiful means of egress from buildings in case of emergency. In this instance, one of the things that caused a lot of the deaths was that the fire escape collapsed under the weight of all the people trying to flee for their lives. Since then, and especially today, managing the flow of people during an emergency is a top consideration. It’s still not perfect, obviously. If you look around the city, most buildings don’t seem to have fire escapes anymore. The newer buildings never do, but looks can be deceiving. These buildings, they do have fire escapes, but they’ve essentially been swallowed up by buildings, evolving into fortified stairs. Fire stairs often double as ordinary staircases used on a daily basis, but they have extra protections and features to make them safer routes of escape during emergencies. So you could be walking on the great-granddaughter of this fire escape every day, and not even notice it.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
So right next door to our office, there’s a storefront and the businesses inside of there have changed over the years, but out front, there’s this persistent element, and it’s a planter. The planter is kind of recessed into the facade a bit so the edge of it, the front edge of it is up against the sidewalk and the plants and dirt, are held in place by this low retaining wall that’s maybe a couple inches deep. Under the best of circumstances, it wouldn’t be a great place to sit, although I’ve seen people try. But what makes it really, really unappealing is this row of knobs that they have arrayed along the top of the wall. We’ve talked about things like spikes on the show before, that dissuade people from sitting. But these knobs, they look almost decorative. Like they’re painted black to blend in with the black wall, they’re defensive design, but like in disguise. And when we think about things like defensive design or hospital architecture, we tend to imagine obvious things like spikes, but there are a lot of less obvious ones too. Some places have sprinkler systems that are situated to keep people away rather than to actually water plants. In Seattle there’s this one bike rack, in particular, that’s infamous because people started to question, why did somebody put a bike rack there? That’s not a place people don’t really park their bikes. It turned out that this was put there by the city to keep people from setting up tents and camping on that particular stretch of sidewalk. Big picture, a lot of these interventions, they don’t tackle bigger, underlying issues. They just shuffle people around, and to me, that’s a good argument for transparency among other things, because when you disguise something, you stop conversations from starting around it, right? Once it’s clear why something is the way it is, people can start to debate whether or not a given design “solution” is humane or equitable or even effective.

Roman Mars:
Looking down on our street corner, you’ll see a bunch of spray-painted marks on the road and on the sidewalk. Here’s a fun fact. The first two-page illustration in the book, located just before Chapter 1, is an illustration of this very spot. Kurt took the picture from our window. The colorful spray-painted markings are a guide to all the pipes and wires and tubes crisscrossing below the surface, and they are there for a very important reason. In June, of 1976, workers were excavating a stretch of Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles, California, and accidentally cut into a hidden petroleum pipeline. The pipe ruptured, and pressurized gas ignited into a fireball that engulfed passing cars and adjacent businesses. More than two dozen people were injured or killed. This wasn’t the first or last tragedy of its kind, but the enormity of this particular disaster helped catalyze the codification of these color-coded utility markings. In general, anyone excavating on public property is required to contact a regional alert organization before digging into the ground, so that the different utility agencies can come out and mark the hazards that may be below. The American National Standards Institute has formalized which colors indicate which utility. This is my favorite part. Red is for electrical power lines. Orange is for telecommunications. Yellow is for gaseous or combustive materials like natural gas or petroleum. Green is for sewage lines. There are a few other colors, but those are some of the biggies. For some reason, an infinity symbol is used to indicate the beginning or end of a proposed project area, even though an infinity symbol is normally applied to things without a beginning or an end. Obviously, some colors and symbols are more intuitive than others. But what I love about all of this official graffiti is that for this stretch of concrete, we all have x-ray vision, if we know how to decode it.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
So on our block, there’s a relatively recent renovation that added a bunch of traffic calming devices, things like planters and bollards to hem in the cars a bit and slow people down, and to make it easier to cross the street. And it’s pretty good. But further up the street, if you go up a bit, there’s a much more traditional and classical and recognizable traffic calming feature — a speed bump. It’s pretty typical. It looks like any other speed bump. It’s just a raised stretch of pavement that goes across the lane, and it’s meant to slow people down. And in the book, we write about a bunch of different traffic calming strategies, but this one, in particular, that I really am into and what it’s called sort of depends on who you ask, but if you Google speed cushion, you’ll get the right result. And what makes it special is actually pretty simple. It’s got these wheel-wide slices cut through it. If you see one, it actually looks more like three smaller speed bumps, side by side, but why? Well, there’s space to accommodate emergency vehicles, like ambulances. For a normal driver, of a normal car, with normal wheel spacing, it still works like a speed bump, but for a driver rushing to save lives, they can breeze right through, without slowing down. Honestly, it’s pretty simple, but I think it’s quite ingenious.

Roman Mars:
Okay. Traffic lights. We already told you about the one in Syracuse, New York with the green on top of the red as a symbol of Irish pride, but that isn’t the only funky thing going on with traffic light colors in the world. In Japan, their green light is more of a bluish-green, and this comes from the fact that their interpretation of the color blue or “ao”, that’s A-O. “Ao” as they say. That’s the best I can say, as they say. The color ao historically encompasses hues that most English speakers in the West would call green. Japan was not a signatory to the Vienna Conventions on Road Signs and Signals, which was this multilateral treaty systematizing road signs, markings, and lights across dozens of countries. And so, for nearly 100 years, Japanese stoplights have been labeled blue on official documents even though many languages would call the color they see on Japanese traffic lights, green. In order to cut down on international confusion, they came to a compromise. In 1973, the government mandated that traffic lights use the bluest shade of green possible, so there’s a color that is technically green, but blue enough to be called ao. If you go to Japan, their green traffic lights may be more… “Grue” or “Bleen”, but still just keep moving along. All as well.

[MUSIC]

Roman Mars:
So I’m talking with Kurt Kohlstedt, he’s the digital director of 99% Invisible and the co-author of the book. And we want to answer a lot of the questions that we’ve been asked as we’ve been putting together the book over the last couple of years.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. And some of these are questions that have come up over and over again. And so I’ve sort of distilled them down and said, okay, which ones are the ones that people are asking the most? And we came up with these questions that seem to sort of synthesize the things that people are interested in knowing more about.

Roman Mars:
Right. So the first one is about the process of gathering material and picking topics and organizing all of the book. One of the things that we had working for us and against us was the 10 years of the show. So there’s a lot of information – information presented in different ways – tons of stuff that’s in the book that never has appeared on the show before. So let’s talk a little bit about how we organized the book.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
There’s this joke I’ve been telling friends — if you’re going to write a book, maybe write it about one thing instead of a hundred things. And it’s a really unique challenge to try to bring all of these stories together under one roof and to figure out, not just what to include, but how to structure the whole thing. Going way back, this is a thing that we first started talking about… like my first text file that has the field guide idea sitting in it is from June 2017. We started to think about, okay, how might this work? What kinds of things might we want to include? And I started writing articles and we started doing shows with that in the back of our mind like, which things are we covering or not covering that would make sense to include in a book about cities and design. And then in 2018, we started to really sit down with this thing and we started working on this giant spreadsheet.

Roman Mars:
Right. Which was a list of every article that you’ve ever written and every episode that we’ve ever done.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
And a bunch of ideas on top of that, and they were all of these different tabs, it was this massive thing.

Roman Mars:
It was really something to behold.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
And then you and I went through and we rated them on a scale of one to five of what type of things would be included in the book that each of us is conceiving in our mind before it’d actually been put together.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right. That was sort of this initial weeding out process. Whereas like, okay, if you say it’s a one, and I say it’s a five, maybe we should talk about it. But of course, there are a lot of places where we just agreed, it’s like, well, this has to be in the book. This is a story we need to tell. And one of the ways that I’ve explained it to other people too is, you had this idea, and maybe I’m oversimplifying a little, but you had this idea of including the best possible stories, which is a great idea. I had this idea of making sure it all made sense as a book, making sure there were sort of arcs within stories, but also between stories and sections and chapters. And I think that tension was actually a really productive tension. You were sort of checking me on, are you just trying to fit this in because you kind of want it to make more sense as a bigger thing or is it actually a good story?

Roman Mars:
Yeah. One of the other tensions was this idea of how much to be a field guide that related to what was happening in most cities and how much to tell the best and most interesting story possible. I think we walk the line really well, but it was definitely something we thought about each step of the way. I have a particular affinity for kind of the most interesting story about the most everyday or mundane thing, that’s my favorite version of this. That’s the heart of the field guide as a concept, but there’s so many things that don’t quite fit into that that we’re just excited about, especially new things. Like when you would come back with some research about stuff that we never covered in the show, those were my favorite because if I’ve covered it, I’m like, “I know it already.” And so when you came back with Battenberg and various other things, that was really the type of thing that I was really, really jazzed about when it came to putting the book together.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
And for me too, as a person who is a fan of the show for years before I joined the show, there was some fun in revisiting old stories and sort of looking at the raw material and looking at what had happened since those stories were published and sort of rethinking it all for the book, like the Chicago River comes to mind. And we talked about the Chicago River or you did in an old episode.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. That was one we did years ago with Dan Weisman.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
But in the book, we talk about it in a different way. I found some more history to that, that was kind of fun and interesting. And so what we ended up with in the book was this kind of combination of some things drawn from the episode, some sort of new developments in the case and then some more history too. So it’s-

Roman Mars:
Totally.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
… It’s fun for me to dive back into some of the classics and expand on that material as well.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. And it really is a different thing to create a book versus to create a story for a podcast. A lot of people asked us about how it differs with audio storytelling in terms of structure and approach. When you’re writing for audio, you know that it’s linear, you know that people are only hearing it in order once, and they’re not sort of scanning it the same way that they do when it comes to written text. And so there’s this process of reiterating the point, anecdote and reflection, anecdote and reflection, and reiterating a point, and it is something that does not work in text. And it was something that was really clear when we started working with Kate, our editor at HMH. She really helped guide and put us in a direction towards a more written format. It was just learning a new skill, especially for me, for sure.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Oh, for me too. And just the leveling up that happened as we got more involved with them and involved them more in the process. So for us, we started out writing essays and it started to graduate towards sections, but soon enough we were sending these essays and sections to the editor and giving back feedback at the kind of granular level. And then it took a long time to build that up into these larger chapters. And each stage of the review, it was like, we would send something bigger and wait a little longer, but get more feedback. But fortunately, early on in the process, we did get a lot of guidance from them about what does and doesn’t work in a book which helped us decide, how are we going to tie different stories together? It turned out I had this idea early on that each story would really clearly dovetail with the next.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. And they did not want that. Kate was just like, “No. People will not read it that way.” I remember each one, you and I labored over these handoff final sentences that will lead right to the next essay, and Kate Napolitano was a fantastic editor who did amazing work with us. It was kind of just like, “You don’t need to do this. If they’re going to read the next one, they’re going to read the next one. If they’re not, and if you really mean it that people can skip around and read different parts, then it just doesn’t help.” And it was like, “Oh yeah, I guess you’re right.” I’m trying to think of, if there was one type of sentence most consistently cut, it was probably one of these pithy handoff sentences that leads directly to the first paragraph of the next essay.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right. And we ended up with a compromise where it’s like, if you do heap reading, you will connect the dots. We’re not going to connect those dots for you, but if you’re reading straight through, it’s like a little Easter egg, if you’re reading straight through, you’ll catch onto the connections between these different pieces. But you’re not kind of forced to read straight through in order to make those connections either, and you can jump around.

Roman Mars:
Exactly. Exactly. That whole process, everything about the process was, I think, pretty smooth, they were good collaborators in a sense. But one of the things that was just really different was the timeline of a book. We do a show every week. It takes maybe six to eight weeks to make an episode of the show. So there’s always this constant churn. You put out articles, there was a little bit less of them when you were working on the book.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. I had to sort of set that aside a little bit.

Roman Mars:
Of course, which you needed to. But you, consistently over the years, have put out two or three articles a week. We’re very used to a production process that has a different metabolism than that of a book creation. Having a long deadline that’s really far in the future, what happens with the book, is terrible. And what makes it almost excruciating is having a weekly deadline that runs In parallel to that deadline.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Well, the only way the long deadline of the book worked really was to break it down into the shorter deadlines and to say, “Okay, well, we’re going to have a version of chapter one by X, a version of chapter two by Y.” It’s like, where do you start? How do you find the kind of motivation to do this if you don’t? And yet one of the surprises to me, I look back and I think it’s so silly, but I told friends and family towards the end of 2019, I’m like, “Well, we’re almost through the hard part.” And it seems so naive in hindsight. It’s a process and it keeps going, and as soon as you’re done with one thing, you’ve got to move on to the next, whether it’s working with the illustrator and working with the designer, there’s always something to be done. And the text is part of that. And the text is a key part of that. But-

Roman Mars:
But it isn’t all of it, for sure.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
No. Not by a long shot.

Roman Mars:
It wasn’t just deciding on illustrations in design and in color and the printing, just everything about it was just so complicated and one of those things that we were really involved in, because one of the pitfalls of having a show about design is that the book you make better be good. It better look good, it better read well, it better flow. It better have a reason for existing, that was my main thing, is like, I already get the opportunity to tell millions of people stories about design, so why should a book exist? And what can it do that the show can’t do? And that’s something that we were constantly thinking about, of how to exploit those differences between a book and a podcast and a website. And so all those things required so much thought, so much so that I think HMH was shocked at the level of detail, especially you were writing them.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. They’re used to authors, authors are authoring, right?. They’re writing, they’re doing the text stuff, but of course, we’re interested in design. So we want to work with the designer, we want to work with the illustrator, we want to make this a designed object. And I have this background in architecture, and so I’m not a great designer, but I at least like the process and know how it works. And so a lot of it was sort of navigating this challenging thing, which you always have to navigate with designers, which is to say, figure out what their strengths are. So we spent, for example, a lot of time looking at the portfolios of both Patrick Vale and Rafael Geroni who are the illustrator and designer of the book, and saying, “Okay. How can we lean into their strengths? How can we sort of give them the freedom to do what they do well, but make sure we also cover the things that we need to cover in the course of this design process?”

Roman Mars:
Yeah. So when we went through and took every story we’ve ever told in whatever format, and we put it into a big spreadsheet and rank them from one to five about what to include in the book, we both quickly settled on the first one being the official graffiti. It had an explosion, it seemed like a good thing that people would see everywhere, there was a story behind it, we could teach people how to decode it in ways that were really fun and obvious. And so I remember that being one of the first ones we settled on, this leads me to one of the last ones we included. So there was a drama in San Francisco with these boulders, which is in chapter six, which is really the last story that we included at all. And I remember you asking me, “Is this worth it?” You were pretty bedraggled and tired from the other 400 pages of writing.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
I also was worried, I was like, is the publisher going to say, “Guys, you have to stop adding stuff, please.” And so I was like, can we convince them to just sneak this one last piece in?

Roman Mars:
And it sort of encapsulated so much of what we were talking about already in chapter six, that it was just like, yeah, I think we got to do it.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
And one of the questions that we’ve gotten asked too is, what’s your favorite piece? And that’s hard to nail down. I really like the first piece in the book. I do think it sort of captures the essence of the book really well, but in some ways, some of my favorite pieces are the ones I had to fight for.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
So there was some consideration of cutting a few pieces. One of which was the piece about standardized time.

Roman Mars:
Right. Right. This was the story of how different towns had to finally start coordinating their clocks because the train was coming and they had to get on the same schedule.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
And what I realized sort of going back over this is that it wasn’t super clear. It was probably too long. I could see how it wasn’t working, but I really thought that the ideas in it were worth keeping and that it was a story worth telling just in shorter form. And so it became one of my favorites because it became one I had to work on in order to justify keeping it in the book, basically.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. I remember us sitting at my kitchen table and us going over that one and me being one of the naysayers who just was like, “This is too complicated. People can’t do math in this way.” And asking you questions about, why is this important? And having you, obviously, just come through with it. And I remember, I had more recently had the deep dive with the book because I’ve been reading it in the studio out loud. And that’s a great section. It really works. You did a great job making that relevant and not complicated and make people understand what it really meant to standardize time when this was not a concern of people at all for millennia.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. And I remember that conversation too. And it was like, I got it. I understood why I was so attached to it. But I basically needed you to talk to and you just say, “Okay. Just explain it to me. Don’t read it, just explain it to me.” And once I did it, you saw the kind of passion I had for it. I think we both realized, okay, there’s something here, it’s just not fully on the page right now. So it’s like, we got to go back to the drawing board a bit and figure out how to simplify this and streamline this so that it’s just a compelling story.

Roman Mars:
And that’s what we tried to do for every story over and over again, page after page while putting this book together. And it comes out today. First of all, I want to thank Kurt Kohlstedt for working so hard on every aspect of this book, his talent and attention to detail is unparalleled. And I also want to thank the 99pi team for reporting so many of the original stories we told and also taking up the slack when we had our heads down trying to power through the writing and the editing. And I want to thank you, you beautiful nerds, for supporting us this far and buying copies for all your friends and family.

Roman Mars:
It’s a really good book from nerdy dads. You got a nerdy dad? This is a good book for him. I say this as a nerdy dad, you should skip giving him the biography of some World War II general this year and give him this book instead. All the pre-orders up to this point and the sales from this week, sum together to give us our place on the bestseller charts, I really want to be on the bestseller charts. So this is the time to act. Get your copy today at 99pi.org/book.

———

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Kurt Kohlstedt. Music by Sean Real. Delaney Hall is the senior producer. The rest of the team is Chris Berube, Emmett FitzGerald, Christopher Johnson, Sofia Klatzker-Miller, Vivan Le, Abby Madan, Katie Mingle, Joe Rosenberg, and me, Roman Mars.

We are a founding member of Radiotopia from PRX, a fiercely independent collective of the most innovative, listener-supported 100% artist-owned podcasts in the world. Find them all at radiotopia.fm.

You can tweet me pictures of the book and the coin @romanmars and the show @99piorg. You can share pictures of the book and the coin on Instagram and Reddit too. But the one place I’d love for you to go to get your copy of The 99% Invisible City, if you haven’t done it already, is 99pi.org/book.

  1. nancy von meyer

    My 10 copies arrived today. The book is beautiful and fascinating. They will be the excellent holiday gifts I expected. Good job. It would be so cool to connect you guys with the Esri folks in Redlands CA and make a story map with the images.

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