Decorative Manhole Covers? Now That's an Infrastructure Win

Necessary, no. But decorative manhole covers draw attention to infrastructure, and that's a municipal win.
Decorative Manhole Covers? Now That's an Infrastructure Win
These decorative stormwater drain covers in Springfield, Mo., are the result of a design contest.

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Decorative manhole covers certainly aren’t necessary, but in a country where infrastructure is often overlooked, every little bit of attention is welcome.

And thanks to a recent trend, these utilitarian art forms are gaining popularity. The #ManholeMonday hashtag has been popping up frequently on Facebook and Twitter, with several utilities highlighting the more creative aspects of these municipal mainstays. 

In the past couple of months, San Francisco Water Power and Sewer has tagged images of manhole covers with colored tiles, graphic images and playful messages. According to the utility, most of these images are from Japan, where 95 percent of municipalities incorporate decorative manhole covers into city infrastructure, thanks to an effort to raise awareness about costly sewage projects. The trend, which began in the 1980s, has gained global attention — with dedicated Flickr accounts and even a book written on the subject. According to the Japan Society of Manhole Covers, the country boasts nearly 6,000 artistic manhole covers, coated in everything from trees to landscapes to floral designs and everything in between.

But that’s a trend that could be moving to the U.S., if the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District has anything to do with it. As the sewer district prepares for new green infrastructure and its Project Clean Lake construction, it’s offering residents the chance to design the cast-iron manhole covers that will be used throughout the project. The district hopes the winning design will raise awareness of how sewer systems affect the Great Lakes. Plus, the winning artist can choose a $500 cash prize or have a $500 donation made in his or her name to a local organization.

And in Seattle, remnants remain from a manhole cover art program that dates back to 1976 when public art was a major focus for the city. At that time, Seattle Arts Commissioner Jacquetta Blanchett visited Florence, Italy, and was so impressed with the manhole covers that she thought Seattle should try something similar. Paul Schell, who was then mayor, agreed, and a public art program was born.

The city hired artists to design the covers. And although some taxpayers criticized the program, Schell reminds city leaders that even with tightening budgets, little things make the difference.

“If we just do the basics, don’t do the things that make you smile, then we’ve lost it. It speaks to our spirit and soul,” he says in an interview for the blog “I Wonder Why?”

Maybe it's time for more municipalities to jump on the decorative manhole bandwagon.

If you have a decorative manhole cover to share, add it to our Facebook page with the hashtag #ManholeMonday. We look forward to seeing what's out there. 


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