Art & Utilities

Working in public utilities has really made my appreciate what cities are: they are a massive habitat for thousands of people to come together and live their lives. Cities bring out the best aspects of humanity: collaboration, innovation, industries revolutionizing the world, creativity and so on. Any aspect of human nature can be amplified by the city in which they live.

Working for the city has made me appreciate the concrete jungle even more than I used to. My job is to deliver the resources you need to make a living right to your door, and if I do it right nobody notices. It's only if the power fails or a water main busts before you bring attention to my job. As they taught us from day one: we're public servants, it is our duty to serve you, but that doesn't mean we have to make an eyesore to get it to you.

My main job is in transmission line engineering, you know those big giant steel poles or lattice towers that are as tall as a five to fifteen story tall building. And maybe it's just my professions version of the frequency illusion, but I notice transmission lines and even distribution line (the smaller, usually wooden pools) everywhere I go. They're ugly to look at and utilitarian looking at best, but it doesn't have to be this way.

One of the best aspects of living within the city are the creative people cities attract. If you live in a significantly large enough city you will find a nice community of artists, especially street artists and muralists. Few cities are beginning to realize that they can unite their artists with their engineers making the city streets into an drive through art exhibit instead of being littered with utility poles and boxes. If the city were the human body, the city departments would be the organs and the artists would be the soul.

The Moon City Creative District in Springfield, MO was the first district I discovered that made an effort to make something more out of their distribution poles. I personally spoke with the lead artist, Linda Passeri, and the lead organizer, Phyllis Ferguson, of their now famous Paint-a-Poll Stroll. And I got some great notes.

Moon City is known to be the creative district within the city of Springfield. It houses dozens of art studios which give the city its unique personality. According to Linda and Phyllis, the two were tired of looking at the wooden poles right outside of their houses, so they decided to do something about it. Without permission from the local utility company, the two took matter into their own hands and decorated two poles. When they were finished, what used to be a wooden splinter became a canvas. They took photos and prepared for their next step: a presentation to the local utility company.

The artful duo scheduled a meeting with the top execs of the City Utilities of Springfield, not afraid to show off their vandalized poles. According to Linda, the execs cut them off halfway through their presentation. The execs were blown away by the idea of making utilities into art and gladly allowed the two to carry out their project.

Linda told me that another motive for the project was to distinguish the neighborhood from the rest of the city, her and Phyllis wanted to leave a message for all passersby saying "Welcome to the most creative part of Springfield." Apparently everybody else in the district loved the message so much that within two years the neighborhood had over 130 painted poles.

There were benefits other than distinguishing the neighborhood. Traffic passing through is now slower, and safer, as people are checking out the works. The poles were no longer vandalized with graffiti or flyers. The utility company looked great for promoting local artists. Residents began taking pride in their neighborhood (Phyllis even was voted on to city council after she lead the project). And, when Pokémon Go was all the rage the poles became Poke Stops or gyms.

Moon City is just one of many cities that are working to unite engineers and artists. Through my research I found out that the inspiration for Moon City began in Canada at the Fernwood art district in Victoria, BC. Houston, TX has their own project of decorating traffic light control boxes called Mini Murals. Orlando, FL has an multi-neighborhood project encouraging neighborhoods to enlist the help of local artists to decorate everything from walls to dumpsters.

We should take pride in our cities, and there's no better way to do that than giving the streets a bit of personality with the help of the local artists. Municipal governments, especially their utility branches, should embrace these creatives and provide them with the funding and tools to make a pole more than a pole, or turn a substation wall into a mural. We need art on the streets.