Some public spaces are boring for a reason

By Engr. Ray Adrian Macalalad


Public art is art pieces that are physically out in public. They can come in various forms like wall murals, sculptures, and even structures to some extent. Wall murals come in vibrant colors which usually attract any person’s attention. Sometimes, the wall murals become more tangible and three-dimensional when they interact with the features of the wall they are painted on. Trick arts are very popular on social media. Sculptures are also laid out in public parks and can come in various forms ranging from life-size statues, and even geometric and reflective figures. Meanwhile, some are at even larger scales wherein people could go inside it, climb up, or sit on it (which is pretty much allowed, unless explicitly prohibited).

While these are of Western origin, Filipino appreciation, and the enthusiasm of local artists have resulted in various public art installations in urban areas to put in some color on the grey space. Back then, all we can see on blank and unpainted walls are graffiti that sometimes spell out unpleasant words or ultimately just forms of vandalism that damage private property.

Today, we have embraced the emergence of local visual artists for their creative expression in public spaces. The boring grey and white have been painted not just red but a spectrum of colors.  Even roads get a color fix in some countries where pavements are painted altogether to contain beautiful and eye-catching illusions. However, public art especially murals should also consider where they should be. In the first place, not all that is plain and dull can be the next canvas of a beautiful public art piece.

Meanwhile, the Department of Public Works and Highways has set a number of standards for infrastructure to ensure safety, make it more appealing and less imposing, as well as to make maintenance work easier. In fact, over the past 10 years, highway safety standards were formulated including the most recent bridge aesthetics guidelines which are benefitting Jones Bridge in Manila as well as the famous San Juanico Bridge that nears the completion of its aesthetic lighting fix.

In 2018, DPWH Secretary Mark Villar issued Department Order No. 48 mandating the inclusion of bridge aesthetics in all bridge plans. Among the salient parts of the order was setting up guidelines particularly in making bridges constructed by DPWH more attractive and less dull. Recommendations take into account visual design elements, topography, geology, visual presence, the character of the area where the bridge is located, as well as rural and urban setting considerations.

One takeaway is that ornamental railings, lightings, and paint color are considered of high level of aesthetic treatment and should not define the visual statement of the bridge. Rather, its physical features should define it such as a pier, deck, superstructure, and abutment. Section 4.1.1 of the guidelines heavily emphasizes that “the application of color or texture treatments is not necessary for the creation of a good-looking bridge”. Among the recommended colors are light ones which are low-maintenance considering it has less sensitivity to ultraviolet radiation. Color combination should be considered for safety reasons especially its interaction with road signs, lights, and railings. Further reference on painting requirements may be found in the DPWH Standard Specification for Highways, Bridges, and Airports, Item 411 on page 318 – 236.

Bridge maintenance is also a very difficult job. The bridge may look very fine when you pass by the carriageway of what is technically referred to as superstructure, but it may have several cracks at the substructure where the girders and piers can be found. Heavily painted with intricate details will do more bad than good especially on the job of bridge inspectors. That is the main reason why you do not see many colors on bridges.

Flyovers are also considered bridges, technically. These have the same components as bridges. All the more, these structures have been painted with the hazard mark or the black and white diagonal stripes to ensure motorists are familiar of its presence. The substructure is painted with plain colors to ensure that road signs can be easily seen as well as other vehicles. Imposing colors such as putting murals at the bottom creates a camouflage for vehicles and even pedestrians. Erring drivers should have no reason why they cannot see people crossing the street.

The DPWH also issued the Highway Safety Standards Manual Volumes 1 and 2 in 2012. The first volume includes the planning stage of highways as well as specifications of curved geometries to ensure safe maneuvering of vehicles of various sizes. The second volume highlights standard road signs and pavement markings. These standards are strongly recommended and are free to be used by local governments as well as private entities to ensure uniformity of road infrastructure across various settings since vehicles and pedestrians use them.

Pedestrian crossings have also fallen prey to creativity. In fact, you can see crosswalks in a myriad of colors in some countries. Some even turned them three dimensional with trick art. These look pretty admirable and some even claim that this can deter speeding (potholes are still the best, sarcasm aside). However, just like potholes, it can cause vehicles to be confused and tricked altogether resulting in road crashes. There are various instances wherein speeding vehicles (speed kills, duh) make a sharp stop because of unfamiliar surroundings and end up in fatal crashes.

Filipinos love art and public spaces should have these for everyone to appreciate. Urban settings are very dull and lifeless without these pieces of art. These give a certain place an identity. Nonetheless, from a safety perspective, not all that is dull and boring are blank canvases that can accommodate art. It can possibly do more harm than good. Thus, careful planning of where to install public art is needed and should be consulted with public safety professionals. After all, a city offers a lot of canvas not just on roads and transport infrastructure. Alleys, perimeter fences, and walls purposely built for that purpose can serve as spaces for murals. Parks and large indoor settings that are not traversed by vehicles, in particular, can host sculptures and statues where spectators can just sit on the side and appreciate the artistic expression and the beauty of the city.

The author is a Filipino licensed civil engineer who specializes in highway safety and planning. He worked for the Department of Public Works and Highways before moving to National Economic and Development Authority as a senior policy and planning specialist. Follow him in blog