The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design

The 99% Invisible City

The 99% Invisible City is like your usual guidebook, except it brings into view the frequently forgotten but important aspects of the cities we live in.

When was the last time you paid attention to the design of manhole covers in your city? For most people who have lived in urban environments for long periods of time, the built environment around us is often something that we take for granted. Despite the fact that we pass by or even physically interact with them on a daily basis, most urban elements, like traffic lights, fire hydrants, or highway lane separators, are overlooked because they seem so mundane and natural. We forget that there was a point in history when our cities did not look the way as we know them now and that everything we see around us has its own story.

The 99% Invisible City

These hidden design stories behind everyday objects are precisely the focus of The 99% Invisible City written by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt. Mars, who is the host of the show 99% Invisible produced by Kohlstedt, has spent a decade revealing the frequently ignored stories found in the built world. Consisting of 6 chapters with introductory and concluding remarks, The 99% Invisible City reads like a conventional guidebook, featuring the unnoticed yet crucial details in urban environments, as well as the human narratives behind these inventions. Each chapter is organised around a particular theme, such as infrastructural or geographical elements, and there are also beautiful illustrations throughout the entire book resonating with the featured stories.

When was the last time you paid attention to the design of manhole covers in your city?

In the section titled “Calculated Omission: Unlucky Numbers,” for example, readers learn that numerical skipping in the numbering of floors is a practice that became popular among property developers, who understood that certain numbers are considered unlucky in different cultures. This practice, however, began to pose as a public safety threat, as responders such as police officers or firefighters need to be able to navigate buildings during emergency situations without having to take special numbering systems into consideration. As a result, cities such as Vancouver have made it mandatory for new developments to be numbered with the conventional numerical system.

The 99% Invisible City
Illustration — Patrick Vale/99% Invisible

Another section, entitled “Ghost Streams: Fish Stories,” explains the ways in which hundreds of waterways exist underneath our cities. It is revealed that, in the process of urban development, streams are often buried underground, and co-opted to become part of urban drainage and sewage systems. This has caused significant damage to the creatures that live in the streams, including algae and fish that are essential to local ecosystems. For this reason, many cities have started to engage in procedures of “daylighting,” which unearths streams in order to provide air and light for the organisms that have been forced underground by urban development. 

These entries, seemingly random on their own, come together to provide the book’s readers with a new pair of glasses to understand the cities that we live in. As Mars and Kohlstedt argue, “The truth is that the mundane objects we pass by without noticing or trip over without thinking can represent as much genius and innovation as the tallest building, the longest bridge, or the most manicured park.” In a humorous and engaging way, The 99% Invisible City adds richness and intimacy to our everyday urban experiences, pushing us to pay close attention to the many unnoticed worlds around us.

Book Details

The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design
Written by Roman Mars & Kurt Kohlstedt
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Date: October 6, 2020
Hardcover, 400 pages
Language: English
ISBN: 978-0358126607