A writer who commonly explores science, culture, and the relationship between the two. Follow on Twitter
Okay, so pretty much all of us live in cities now, or we soon will; that’s a given. There’s lots of good to come from that and plenty to worry about too.
Something that people don’t think about much, though, is that so many of us take urban living as an excuse to turn off our senses: when it’s time to observe our surroundings, to pay attention in that naturalist, scientist way, we jump in a plane or a car and go out yonder somewhere: state park, national park, even a local farm,
where we whip out a Peterson’s Guide and wax lyrical over identifying a scarlet tanager or a rufous-sided towhee.
Except, no: that’s exactly wrong. Urban environments aren’t just buildings where we work, roads we drive, and condoboxes where we sleep. They’re our environment — and every bit as interesting in their own way as the suburban or rural environments we go to on vacations and buy guides to. And every bit as understandable, too. The quotidian details of the urban environment are just as fascinating as those of the natural environments we drive hours to visit. Following the trail of a local utility project is just as interesting as following the trail of a deer or a raccoon. The trick is to remember to look.
I’ve learned a lot of things about the signs and spoor of the technical infrastructure we tend to ignore, so as we consider ourselves as city dwellers, I wanted to remind us to keep our eyes open by sharing some of those secret trails. Though the first thing you should probably do is get yourself your Peterson’s guide — in this case, A Field Guide to Roadside Technology actually exists for this stuff. It’s a pocket book that you’ll never regret having in your pocket; unless I’m mistaken, there’s no app for it yet, though one is surely coming. It identifies every splice box and pedestal, every manhole cover and paving technology.
But for things you can look for every day without a guide, start with those those weird hieroglyphics: the spray-painted multicolored squiggles that sometimes mysteriously appear on the street or sidewalk in front of your home. Those are utility markings — and they follow a standard. Any utility that wants to dig — pave a street, replace a sewer pipe, bury an electric line — sends the word out, and everybody else comes in, checks their records, and marks the pavement so nobody accidentally cuts a buried line or cracks a shallow pipe. There’s a standard color scheme — red for electric lines, orange for communication cables, blue for water, green for sewer. A few simple codes help you glean more information: diamonds indicate buried conduit, a T a dead end, a cross in a circle a buried splice or valve. Your world is trying to tell you stories — if you’ll only listen.
Same thing with utility poles. If you li
ke, you can dismiss them as eyesores srpouting unidentifiable sheaves of wire. Or you can learn to identify those wires. There’s a simple utility pole ecosystem, divided into zones. At the top — farthest away from the ground, for greatest safety — are transmission lines, lines of 70 kilovolts or higher running between plants and substations, always in groups of three, since electric power is transmitted in three phases. Below the transmission lines are distribution lines — the 12.5 kilovolt lines running from substations to neighborhoods, where those can transformers step down the voltage for the secondary distribution lines that run to buildings and houses. Below those are communications lines — coaxial cable and fiber optics; you can tell the fiber optics by the showshoe-shaped loops of extra wire. Below that lies what infrastructure observers call the yard-sale zone. I’ll let you figure that part out yourself.
One final easy thing to find is traces of the surveying that make all these buildings and Google Maps and everything else possible. If you’re ignoring the hieroglyphics and the utility poles, you’re probably stepping over the geodetic survey markers that your state and national agencies have been placing in your sidewalks and bridges and streets. You know that you can visit a map and get your latitude and longitude with the click of a mouse. But once you do that, you can also go to this National Geodetic Survey site and get a list of all the survey markers — they’re usually either benchmarks or traverse points — within some radius of your home. (This Geocaching site does this for you even easier and includes photographs, but where’s the fun in letting someone else do all the work?) Kids especially like doing this — and once you introduce them to the concept, they tend to keep their eyes open for them for the rest of their lives.
Which is the entire point. Concrete and steel and spray paint and wire may not be as cute as a baby bunny or as exotic as a view from the mountaintop reached by cog railway. But if we remember to keep our eyes open to what’s around us, thinking about all that other stuff will probably come more naturally.