The comforting yet informative voice of Rick Steves was filling my ear, guiding me as my wife and I ambled around the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome. We had downloaded an audio tour of the area and each had one EarPod in as he pointed us down this street or across that square or over to that alley. Here we were, strolling through an ancient piazza, having Rick point out incredible architectural features and countless historical facts when I stumbled upon the most mundane of all civic components. So commonplace and ordinary that it still sticks with me today. The most utilitarian of features, the simplest form of public infrastructure, the very basic workhorse of the public realm, the lowly manhole cover.
But this was Rome, and this wasn’t just your typical manhole cover, this was a Roman manhole cover. It was detailed, it was informative, it was bold and it said something profound about the people who made it and installed it. This manhole cover announced that the Romans were a proud people and that they were worthy of surroundings that made them feel as such.
This simple piece of public infrastructure taught me that it’s the small things that matter. The little details that we are so prone to overlook, make up a significant part of our lives. Sure, it was only a manhole cover- so what’s the big deal? The big deal is that our places are made up of a million small decisions like this manhole cover. How many thousands of people will walk past that each day? How does a small nudge toward pride affect a community?
The cobbles surrounding the manhole cover that make up the street and sidewalk, the ornate lighting affixed to the stone building, the doorways, the plants, the windows, the balconies. Every little detail working in concert to create an environment that impacted everyone who experienced it in a positive manner. This was a street that made people feel a certain way. Surroundings that elevated a person’s emotions, a place that made the pedestrian feel more dignified, sophisticated, and proud.
This is the power of small things. This is why the details matter so much- because the whole is comprised of all the lesser inputs. It all adds up to either make something we strive to experience, that improves our well-being or, on the converse, places where the details are overlooked and therefore become places that make us feel worse. The environments that ignore the small details become the places people avoid.
I expect this manhole cover took more time and money to create than your average one, but cost should not be the only measure we consider when we talk about the public realm. Cost is only one facet of the equation and overlooks so many other important factors. In our private lives, we don’t make every decision based on cost, more often we make decisions based on emotion, based on ego, or based on aesthetics. Does this product make me happy, does it fit my self-image, is it cute, will it improve my life?
All those questions play a part in the things we choose to acquire, or the efforts we undertake. Because when we make decisions about what we surround ourselves with in our personal lives, we consider the value of those things. People pay more for beauty, they are willing to spend more for something because those things have an emotional impact. They affect the way people feel and it’s worth putting in more time, effort, or money to feel better.
This same sort of thinking lies behind the decision to manufacture a beautiful manhole cover or in making a street feel exquisite. There is a value in those decisions that supersedes cost. All those little details can add up to something profound.
Because when all the components that make up a street create an environment that makes people feel special, that street then is doing something hard to put a price on. That street is creating a sense of attachment, fostering a sense of civic pride, increasing residents’ loyalty to their community, and deepening a sense of resident ownership and engagement, it’s simultaneously an incredible piece of marketing, a huge tourist draw, an incredible economic development strategy and a ready-made Instagram photo.
Once we look beyond the cost of production and start considering the return on investment, we can start to understand why it makes sense to build a beautiful public realm. We also must consider the long-term cost of building cheap vinyl garbage places that erode our basic sense of dignity, places that foster anti-social behavior and negatively impact our mental and social health. Sure, they are cheaper to build, but the price cities pay on the backend is substantially higher.
Maybe it’s a decision about a street light, or a section of sidewalk, who knows, maybe it’s a bike rack, a hanging basket, or the lowly manhole cover. Be careful not to overlook the little decisions. Think beyond cost and remember value. Consider human nature and how you want to feel when you experience a place, and consider whether or not residents will feel proud or ashamed of the place they call home. It might only be a manhole cover, but I have been thinking about it for six months now, have it tattooed on my forearm and just wrote 900 words about it. It just so happens that small things can have a big impact.