A smart city need not be ugly

For now, it’s the sort of stuff that’s both in plain view and largely invisible unless you’re looking for it.

Smart-city gear — Wi-Fi antennas, various sensors, video cameras — are gradually blooming on streetlights, traffic signals and light poles across the urban landscape.

Walk along Main Street where Kansas City’s streetcar runs and cast your eyes upward. They start to become obvious.

And, dang, they’re ugly.

In that gadgetry lies dozens of ways to make traffic run smoother and to improve how a cityscape works for the people who inhabit it. In years to come, the number of strung-about gizmos will grow, and they’ll spread farther across the city. With their ubiquity will come applications nobody’s yet imagined.

As they dangle above our heads, we’ll notice them more. And likely come to scorn them. Partly because they are eyes tracking our comings and goings. Partly because they’ll become warts on our scenery.

At Kansas City’s City Hall, the proliferation of smart-city gadgetry has been limited in part, as the city’s Chief Innovation Officer Bob Bennett puts it, out of reluctance to load up poles “like Christmas trees.”

Chicago leads most places in its smart-city technology with its Array of Things, sensors collecting and sharing data that track air quality, weather, sound levels, light and traffic.

The project hopes to make Chicago more livable, telling your smartphone how to avoid a crowd, or a better route to the bus stop than the dark, mostly abandoned street you might otherwise take.

Planners recognized that for the system to work, the “nodes” needed to be at almost every intersection. They also reasoned that if the boxes needed to be so common, maybe they shouldn’t look so homely.

That turned them to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to pretty up their packaging. Robb Drinkwater, a designer from the school, worked with artists and neighborhood groups to build a waterproof, heat-resistant box that wouldn’t look like a pox on the city.

Speaking at the Gigabit City Summit in Kansas City last week, Drinkwater said the aim wasn’t to blend the nodes in like “a piece of urban infrastructure” — which is what they are. Rather, it was a chance to make them obvious and, eye of the beholder notwithstanding, attractive.

“We were told, ‘Whatever you do, don’t make it ugly,’ ” he said.

As Kansas City moves to make the city smarter with its own nodes and sensors, it might take that same counsel. Take that Digital Age infrastructure and transform it to art. (Would that make up for the Bartle Hall pylons, which somehow look more like infrastructure that needs covering up than the art they attempt?)

Maybe look to the folks at the Kansas City Art Institute. Or to the city’s rich collection of architectural firms. Or outsource the project.

Yeah, art costs more than ugly (although the Bartle Sky Stations might suggest that money won’t buy beauty and public art will draw detractors). But it’s worth a few more dollars for a prettier city (and the arguments over what counts as art).

You may find the design of Chicago’s nodes whimsical, or a new form of blight. But they show that a practical thing can double as a canvas.

How a city treats that object will turn on its collective ability to make the functional artful.

This is a chance to show that along with being a smart city, we can be a good-looking one.

Scott Canon: 816-234-4754, @ScottCanon