Cities usually put their construction and repairs at full throttle during the summer season. There are obvious reasons, of course: reduced car traffic and good weather conditions are only a few. For those who stay in town, as well as those who come to visit, this sudden (over)saturation of road repairs and infrastructure upgrades can become a serious nuisance. But let’s focus on something a little less obvious, instead, and for the purpose of this article, call it the packaging of public inconvenience.

It would probably be a dictionary example of a truism to say that roads, rail tracks and buildings need repairs from time to time. Few people would have a problem with that, I guess. However, the way you go about repairs, development and construction work AS A CITY, is an altogether different story, especially if you happen to be a world heritage site, with millions of tourists coming to visit every year.

The Ugly Face of Oversight

When you re-build something, repair or modernise it, chances are, long months (sometimes years) will pass before anyone is in a position to acknowledge, let alone appreciate the positive outcomes of your work. In the meantime, however, everyone (residents and visitors alike) will surely be exposed to much inconvenience, starting from daily sights, sounds and smells attached to the workload carried out, all the way to transport restrictions and the overall aesthetics of a site under development, in great many cases, leaving a lot to be desired.

While this may be accepted as perfectly normal, or even expected by many, the question remains: ARE THERE REALLY NO IDEAS FOR IMPROVING EVERYONE’S EXPERIENCE, especially such that can be implemented WITHOUT MUCH EXTRA EFFORT OR FUNDS? In other words, is user experience really meant to be reserved, first and foremost, for the virtual world, over and above the physical one?

So What Should Change And Why?

Here’s a quick list:

  1. Start with something as simple as a word of APOLOGY to everyone affected and have it properly installed for everyone to see (e.g. an information board presenting the key project parameters + end-result visualisation). For cities with even the smallest percentage of international tourists, you’d better do it in English as well!
    How to go about it? In an ideal world, your city should have a website (in the first place!) which integrates all scheduled (and unplanned) road-repair/construction/development activities and informs everyone (in a clear and infographic fashion!) about the various impacts expected and counter-measures adopted.

    Back to the apology, however. It would really do no one any harm if a visitor coming to e.g. Kraków, expecting to find the city in its full grandeur and glory (and bumping into an ugly construction fence instead), were afforded the smallest of courtesy gestures, such as a simple information board with:

    Dear Visitor,

    We are truly happy that you have chosen to visit [city name]. Given that millions of visitors come to our city every year, it is of utmost importance for us to make their experience of [city name] as positive as possible. To make this happen, we are continuously working to modernise and upgrade the city’s infrastructure and improve our key public services.
    Please, accept our sincere apologies for any inconvenience this [project name/construction work type] may have caused you during your stay in [city name]. We hope you’ll come back to our city one day to see the progress we have achieved in making [city name] as user friendly as possible.

    [City Mayor’s Signature]

  2. Let’s put No. 2 on the list as bluntly as we can: if you are a city which just happens to be photographed by literally tens of thousands of people every minute of just about every day, you’d better negotiate schedules with your subcontractors that don’t leave everyone puzzled and wondering: Why has nothing (or definitely FAR TOO LITTLE) been happening on this site for days and weeks? Is this what you call efficiency?

    Trust me, there is a very short distance between such questions and the likes of: If I had a similar level of commitment at work (not to mention general cleanliness or discipline), I would probably have been sacked minutes after I was given the job.

    Once a serious inconvenience is introduced to the public domain, people (both residents and visitors, mind you!) expect to see serious work happening, to push things swiftly towards the completion, at least in proportion to the gravity of the inconvenience caused! Otherwise, they will feel you are neglecting (or even) disrespecting them. It’s as fundamental as the concept of work ethos itself.

  3. To you, construction engineers, supervisors and subcontractors out there, I would humbly say this: Are you seriously trying to convince anyone that the sheer aesthetics of how you go about your business really couldn’t be any better, not even a bit? That the fence you’ve set up (to stay for months) could not look just a little better or at least be installed in a way that doesn’t bring about associations with abstract art ? OR That the temporary passageway you have “built” for  pedestrians is really the best you can do to prevent women breaking their heels or everyone else spraining their ankles?

So perhaps it would not be a bad idea to put in place a standard manual of city construction-work aesthetics (one which would be binding for all contractors), to prioritise its requirements into clean-cut categories, such as Quality Standards of Project Information For Residents/Visitors, and, most importantly perhaps, to reward the best performers! Why not bring the cleanest-looking, most professional construction projects to the limelight, create both financial and non-financial incentives to make such practice worth everyone’s effort. Once people see things can be done with an altogether different approach to construction-site aesthetics, it will become part of the city brand, the kind that doesn’t put the city authorities in a defensive mode. Quite to the contrary.

If methodologies like Kaizen can work (and contribute measurable benefits) in a tight workshop environment, that few have access to or even see, some of its aesthetics should definitely be applicable to sites everyone can see, not to mention how you go about your business.

How About the Blissful Chaos of the Event World?

The same rules should apply to event companies, organisers of fairs, thematic markets and festivals, and just about anyone keen to set something up (a stage, a food stall, event infrastructure, no matter how temporary) in the heart of a historic city.

I might be wrong, but the function of any construction and repairs activities is not to make the city feel (any more) abstract or surreal, but to improve everyone’s experience, including THE PERIOD WHEN THE NECESSARY ACTIVITIES ARE TAKING PLACE, NOT ONLY ONCE THEY ARE COMPLETED.

Set the Standards For Others to Follow

If you are a mayor of a city (matching the description above) and if you really want to stand out from the crowd of similar cities, if only by setting an example of what repairs and construction activities should look and feel like, this is probably one creative way to go about it.

To use a corporate analogy, whether you like it or not, construction and repairs activities within a city are part of your city’s brand. And I guess few people need reminding that to build a strong brand of a city is an infinitely more complex task than to build a brand of a company, any company.

So here’s one way for you to meaningfully contribute to the world of status quo where just about everyone does it the same way, often with plastic tape, shabby fencing and a little too much havoc on the ground. And if you really need to use tape, make sure it is on the environmentally-friendly side of things, preferably made of fabric, with city/event branding on it, consistent, even easily accessible for others to use, as and when they decide to temporarily seal of even as much as as a square metre of public space for whatever purporse.

Consider some of these ideas an opportunity for bringing new aesthetics to a world which, even in the 21st century, takes the right to a little too much chaos, disorder and clutter for granted. Wanna be a smart city? This is where it (actually) starts!