Book Review: The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt

Finally! It’s Infrastructure Week!

Or at least it was Infrastructure Weekend, since this past weekend was spent reading The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt (Mariner Books, 2020). I have zero flair for any kind of design myself: not the stylish, not the practical, not the functional. But I’ve long been fascinated by all the secrets of functional city design, so when I learned of the existence of this book around its publication date, I knew I had to read it. Apparently so did everyone else at my library, but there it was on the shelf during my last visit, and into my bag it went. It’s a surprisingly heavy book!

If you’ve ever been out and about and wondered, “What is that thing on that building? Why did they build the light poles on those weird bases? Do all manhole covers look like that? Is that really a house, or is a front for something else? What’s the deal with all those wires, and how did my city get all these squirrels in the first place?”, you’ve got exactly the right curiosity to dive into a copy of Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt’s book on the design secrets of city infrastructure (and a little more!).

Stemming from the podcast, 99% Invisible, the book takes a deeper look at the elements that make up our cities, from the streets to the buildings, the sewers to the skyline, how those designs came to be, and why. Complete with charming illustrations depicting the design concepts covered in the text, this is a book that will have you looking up, down, and all around to discover the hidden magic that makes your town or city home.

What a truly fun book! It starts off with a bang, discussing the colors of the spray paint that workers use to mark the ground and what each color means (FASCINATING!!! I actually copied the list down in my reading binder, because who doesn’t like being privy to what these markings mean? I feel a little like I know a secret code now!), and then keeps going with light poles and- something of personal interest to me- electrical substations that look like houses. I had never heard of this before, hadn’t known it was a thing, but there’s a house in town on our main drag that looks…just a little suspicious. Not *quite* like a normal, everyday house that someone lives in. The doors don’t look right. No one is ever there. The driveway is weird. And, as this book informs me, the likelihood is high that the building is (or was once used as) a hidden electrical substation. Building these to look like houses was apparently a thing for quite some time throughout the US. Some are still in use; others are empty, or have been cleared out and renovated to be actual houses. Always nice to have my suspicions confirmed.

I also really enjoyed the section on city animals, how to live with them, and how they got there in the first place. Apparently squirrels weren’t always such a huge presence in cities; at one point, Philadelphia (I believe it was) only had three in the entire city! But with nature comes problems, and Mars and Kohlstedt are quick to point out that one out of five power outages are caused by squirrels. As someone whose high school was once dismissed early because a squirrel chewed through the power lines and left us in the cold and dark, I’m not really surprised to learn that this statistic is so high!

The 99% Invisible City is a really fun book that will keep you interested in where you live and have you asking plenty of questions. I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but you can be sure I have it bookmarked for the future!

Follow Roman Mars on Twitter here.

Follow Kurt Kohlstedt on Twitter here.

Check out 99% Invisible: The Podcast’s website here.

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