Visual Pollution in Cities

As an architectural photographer and card carrying city lover I spend an inordinate amount of time studying the visual characteristics of our built environment.

One thing that’s caught my attention and seems to be an increasing problem is visual pollution. I’m talking about poles everywhere, numerous confusing street signs, park here, no parking here, and outlandish commercial signage.

Catering to the Automobile

Obviously over the last fifty years our cultural love affair with the automobile has had an enormous effect on our cities. This behavior has in effect placed the automobile as the dominate member of the urban fabric relegating the pedestrian to an after thought. This is the state of our cities.

The infrastructure necessary to cater to our automobile dependent cities over a more pedestrian friendly environment is the number one junk contributor

Pictured here is a small two lane urban road, running along Columbus’s Goodale Park and four story residential.

Seems like a simple situation and yet it was deemed necessary to install three highway signs.

Same street, contrasting bike/car parking.

Worse, same street, a simple intersection requires 2 stop signs, 2 do not enter, a parking information sign, a blocked one way sign, 2 street signs, and a no turn right sign. Got that?

This sort of excessive, out of scale signage is rampant. I hold out hope that urban designers, landscape architects and planners begin to look at this issue. It’s an issue of waste and degrading of the urban experience for everyone.

Extreme Corporate Sponsorship

Public/Private partnerships have grown in popularity as city budgets have been under pressure for decades now. In Columbus, no company has been more involved in the growth and development of Columbus than Nationwide Insurance.

Nationwide has been a driving influence behind: numerous downtown office and residential developments, the entire Arena District, supporting our NHL team, Children’s Hospital, a major United Way sponsor, and the list goes on. You could easily estimate their contributions to Columbus in the billions. 

This doesn’t exempt Nationwide from my criticism though.

Nationwide One, a strong, late 1970’s modern designed 40 story tower recently underwent serious change. I’ve always given Nationwide credit for how they used their prominent location and visibility for good civic engagement. They do a good job of lighting the exterior, using their windows to write messages, both of which change for seasons and events. There also used to be a restaurant at the top, however it closed in mid-90’s. 

Recently, at Nationwide One, they’ve put up two outrageously large Nationwide signs. One facing south is complete, the matching northern sign is going up now. They are so large, and bright that you can see them at first sight of the skyline — many miles away.

I have it on good authority that when requesting approval from the downtown commission, Nationwide was actually requesting LARGER signage. Honestly, how much larger could it have been!?

It’s not like they have a lack of signage. I took a walk around the perimeter of their campus and photographed each piece of signage.

That’s a lot! It’s like they’re scared will forget about them. Nationwide, you’ve done a lot of really nice things for Columbus — but please have a little self confidence and restraint.

Even Gotham City suffers from the same problem, although Batman seems to be on top of the situation. 

I joke about Gotham City, but honestly neither Chicago or New York suffer from this level of overt corporate signage as we do in Columbus. Upon a quick estimation, I’m counting 17 buildings in downtown Columbus with large, bright signage on them. That’s about half of our large buildings.

More should take the approach of the interesting and subtle rather than obvious and overt. Milstein Hall, at Cornell University is a terrific example of this.

It’s impractical to think that the automobile’s dominance will change drastically in the next decade or that corporations will decide not to slap their logo on buildings but we can do better.

Start with straight forward reform inside the transportation department. Clean up this mess of signs that exist everywhere.

Buy the right products. Columbus just replaced most of their parking meters to accept credit cards. This kept all the ugly meters on the street — better would have been one ticket printing machine and identify a parking zone. This is common in other cities.

Straight forward parking rules. Make it clear with one, two maximum signs that in this specific area is where you park. If it isn’t a confirmed parking zone, you can’t park there.

These simple, intelligent improvements can make it better for everyone.

We can only hope we won’t be blinded by the corporate light.


A few weeks ago, the conversation on how major internet content sites have been junking up the web.

-Please let this not be the future of reading on the web

-Roger Black: The holy grail, part 1

-Brent Simmons: The Readable Future

Hat tip to Jon Gruber at DaringFireball for the links.