The Works

Against the Cutesification of Urban Design

The problem with “playful” pedestrian signals.

“Dancing don’t walk” figure from a Smart Car campaign

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Over the past several years, designers and artists have been falling over each other to incorporate fun and play in the urban streetscape. Musical swing sets at Montréal bus stops; a piano staircase in a Stockholm subway station (and several other places); a Swedish trashcan that makes a cartoonish “falling” sound when you throw something in.

Several of these whimsical efforts have been featured in a very successful ad campaign from Volkswagen called “The Fun Theory,” which posits the idea “that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behavior for the better.”

Two recent entries in the self-consciously twee realm of urban infrastructure have to do with pedestrian signals. One, called “Streetpong,” allows people on opposite sides of a crosswalk to play a “Pong”-like video game with each other on the buttons that you push to request a walk light, while also showing how many seconds remain before the signal will change. It’s being tested at one crosswalk in Hildesheim, Germany. “At last a nice way to spend the time waiting at the traffic lights,” says the young man who demonstrates it in a video.

Another example, sponsored in this case by Smart Car, is a “don’t walk” figure that dances in response to the movements of people in a nearby booth who line up for a chance to make the little man jig about. The promotional video, shot at a crosswalk in Lisbon, Portugal, represents another corporate attempt to get in on the phenomenon of what you might call quirky urbanism, complete with hashtag.

It’s all “FOR a safer city,” the campaign tells us. “Traffic lights are the most dangerous places for pedestrians,” because “nobody likes to wait.” According to the campaign, people waited 81 percent longer at the dancing light, “and they even had fun doing so.”

At first glance, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this. Who could be against a little fun, after all? I used to think such projects were at least kind of cool. But the more of these cutesy campaigns and “design solutions” I see, the more they strike me as sickly sweet, and often dangerously beside the point.

Crosswalks are dangerous, all right, but often because of drivers who run red lights and stop signs (because, after all, “nobody likes to wait”) or fail to yield. In New York City, one recent study of pedestrian injury showed that 44 percent of victims were in the crosswalk with the light when drivers struck them; 6 percent were on the sidewalk. Only 9 percent were crossing against the signal in a crosswalk.

More broadly, the focus on expensive and often impractical “playful” solutions that can’t be scaled up diverts designers’ and planners’ attention from the real challenges at hand. City-dwellers don’t need garbage cans with sound effects, they need more garbage cans, and more frequent trash pickup. Regular bus commuters don’t need swings, they need shelter from the elements and reliable information about bus arrival time. Pedestrians don’t need to play games at the crosswalk, they need shorter crossing distances, longer walk signals, and better separation from cars.

The cutesification of urban design may make for fun tourist attractions, but it infantilizes the very people who use a city most: residents and commuters. The parent walking a child home from day care on a rainy night, worrying if the cars will stop for them. The older person who needs a bit more time to cross the street. The construction worker waiting for a bus in the blazing sun.

People who write and think about cities (myself included) should probably stop getting so excited about these often corporate campaigns to make things “fun.” Cities that are safe and clean and offer economic and social opportunity, cities where people use the streets without fear for their lives, are inherently fun already. If a city isn’t any of those things to start with, no video game is going to help.

The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including CityLab, Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.

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Tags: carswalkability

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