The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Public Spaces

Let's cover blank walls with public murals

One of the most basic tenets of good urban design is that walkways should be lined with things to look at.

Why not add murals to this tunnel at Court House Metro?

Blank walls discourage walking because they make a walk seem boring and therefore longer, and because empty and lightly maintained spaces feel less safe. Detailed, colorful places are inherently more pedestrian friendly than dismal, blank spaces, and therefore urbanistically superior.

So, given that, why do we accept so many blank spaces in our cities?

Take a look at the photo at right. It shows a walkway under Wilson Boulevard leading to Court House Metro station. The walkway isn't much longer than the street is wide, but walking through it is a pretty dismal experience. It feels like such a long and dangerous walk that few people use the tunnel.

Sprucing it up would almost certainly increase usage, and could potentially lead to higher Metro ridership. Better lighting and some mirrors would help, of course, but what about a little art? Why not cover each wall with a series of colorful murals?

There is no need for any such project to be expensive or logistically challenging. Every high school in America is filled with art students who would love a chance to show off their skills publicly. Metro could work out a deal with a local school: Give each art student one concrete panel and let them go wild, as part of a class project. Coordinate with teachers to make sure murals turn out appropriate to the public (and if one doesn't, 10 minutes and a bucket of white paint solve that problem). For practically no cost, Metro would dramatically improve the user experience at this station. If it leads to even a modest rider increase, the project would pay for itself.

How many other places around the region would benefit from a similar project? Any city resident can probably think of 10 blank walls somewhere in their neighborhood. It seems the only reason they can't be improved is that nobody bothers to do so.

Of course it is true that Metro and the city at large have bigger problems than a few blank walls, but this is low-hanging fruit. It will take long, hard work to solve Metro's systemic maintenance and safety problems, but this is something that would positively influence the system and could be accomplished with nothing but a few hours of coordination and the cost of paint.

Let's do it.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post


Add a comment »

I like what Alexandria did with the pedestrian tunnel under Duke St (south side of the King St Metro). There, they put up various framed images, including some cool old maps of the area. That'd be another option.

by Froggie on Aug 17, 2010 3:58 pm • linkreport

Sorry to be sour, but I hate kid art, especially murals. I used to use this tunnel daily, and there are no issues with it at all. Nothing wrong with a decompression zone that separates work and home. This is a generational thing. Whats wrong with neutral spaces that are quiet and not distracting, giving ones mind a break from the hustle and bustle. Yes, nothingness. Sometimes its a great relief. If it bugs you, just turn your iPod up and walk faster.

by spookiness on Aug 17, 2010 3:58 pm • linkreport

Talk about a generation gap. Over on the "Struck" thread from Sunday, Lance is arguing against the use of iPods in public.

by Matt Johnson on Aug 17, 2010 4:00 pm • linkreport

@ Froggie: Funny, I find the frames in the Duke St tunnel utter kitch. Cheap crap that's supposed to be styly, but isn't.

But, it's better than nothing.

I approve of the idea, and would point out that we also have quite a number of pretty decent academic art colleges in town.

I would make sure that the projects are taken seriously. It should not end up like the horrific music crap that is "performed" in metro stations.

I'd also like to expand it to all the gray concrete walls around the here so-hated elevated highways in the area.

by Jasper on Aug 17, 2010 4:10 pm • linkreport

Jasper: being the map geek that I am, I focus mostly on the framed maps under Duke St...and there are enough of them to satisfy my interest when I walk through.

by Froggie on Aug 17, 2010 4:23 pm • linkreport

What about advertisements? They're certainly a far cry from the artworks advocated by the article, but at least they break up the monotony of the wall whilst also serving as an additional revenue source.

...And/or for hallways that are big enough, perhaps also small merchant carts: food would be ideal, but some other small office- or tourist-oriented trinkets might also fit in well without creating the potential food trash issue on the rail system.

And PIDS in the tunnels! I love to know when I need to run back when there's still some time to do something about it.

by Bossi on Aug 17, 2010 4:27 pm • linkreport

FYI, I once wrote to WMATA to complain about flooding in the Courthouse tunnel during heavy rains. I was told that the tunnel is under the jurisdiction of the County, not WMATA. Some work was done to the tunnel a few months ago, though who did it and whether it was to fix the leaks, I don't know.

I use this tunnel every day, occasionally late at night, and never have I found it to be dangerous or creepy. I'm not sure it needs artwork. I would just like someone to clean it regularly and especially after windstorms, when it manages to collect a lot of debris and litter.

by ArlRes on Aug 17, 2010 4:31 pm • linkreport

Given that the DC government recently selected an atrociously bad 20 foot sculpture for placement in the middle of Adams Morgan, I'm not too confident in our public art authorities at the moment.

by Phil on Aug 17, 2010 5:05 pm • linkreport

I would prefer advertisements to the amateurish and saccharine earnestness that are kid-murals.

I guess "urban murals," especially by high school students, is its own aesthetic which some people find appealing, but I personally don't.

by JustMe on Aug 17, 2010 5:16 pm • linkreport


Last I heard, the Bicycle Man was shelved... have they brought it back or chosen something different?

by Bossi on Aug 17, 2010 5:19 pm • linkreport

NYC has done some amazing renovations to their walkway tunnels, here are some samples:

I think DC resident's will appreciate it (if done tastefully) a bit more than our Virginia and Maryland neighbors.


by PG on Aug 17, 2010 5:26 pm • linkreport

I'm with Bossi. Count me as an Arlingtonian who thinks the ban on outdoor advertising is unnecessary.

I find Metro ads to be mild, and sometimes even useful -- it seems like there are a lot of non-commercial ads (museums, PSAs, etc.). Buses ought to have more ads, updated more frequently -- sometimes they're for events months past.

I'm all for art, too -- but if we can't do that, ads are better than concrete.

by Gavin on Aug 17, 2010 5:41 pm • linkreport

Although I wouldn't mind if all the ads for military contractors disappeared. Ick.

by Gavin on Aug 17, 2010 5:42 pm • linkreport

I really hate kid art and would prefer blank walls. The mural in U St needs to go.

DO you have a reference for "one of the most basic tenets of good urban design is that walkways should be lined with things to look at"? Is there an authority on urban design, or a common source that folks typically refer to?

MY basic tenet would be walkways should reveal their location and their destination. So, if you're underground, show exposed underground boulders. If you're above ground, show a view of the air space. If the walkway leads to a Metro station, stick a giant M at the end.

Art is a tricky thing. And it's funny that many folks prefer good advertising to bad art - I'd agree. I think it's because having a professional artist or designer produces much better results than giving some 5th-grade class a bunch of paint brushes.

by M.V. Jantzen on Aug 17, 2010 5:42 pm • linkreport

Of course, one problem with art is that it'll rarely please everyone. As an example: I've gotta disagree with M.V. on the U St mural... I actually kind of like it. Whereas the Adams Morgan Bicycle Man (wherever that project may be) just kind of made my skin crawl from the renderings... but then again, if I were to see it actually built, perhaps I wouldn't think it too bad.

I'll concede I tend to be in the camp of anything is better than nothing when it comes to texturing a wall surface; unless the nothing is specifically a part of the overall art piece as an element of negative space.

But I do agree with MV a bit in that I like natural touches, too... I can like a lot of things, actually. Ads, art, natural or natural-looking elements, even textured or curved concrete can be nice (I kind of like the curved tops/bottoms in a number of the Metro tunnels). But a sheer blank wall... that's my own personal bigger pet peeve.

by Bossi on Aug 17, 2010 5:52 pm • linkreport

I'd vote against the murals. While in concept they may sound appealing, and everyone can point to at least one mural in this city that they like (for me it's the Marilyn Monroe one on the far side of the Taft Bridge), in practice the vast majority of them end up looking like graffiti gone wild ... And oftentimes either convey a message that is childish and 'let's all hold hands and sign sing Kubaya' or insulting in tone to anyone who that artist conveys as 'the establishment'. As we saw in Adams Morgan's Kalorama Triangle recently with the painting of a mural in a park there, most people say they'd opt for the peace and quiet over a 'gaudy' political message disguised as 'art' ... albeit 'art' that usually doesn't even rise to the standards of a high school art class.

by Lance on Aug 17, 2010 6:09 pm • linkreport

@ Matt Johnson. Wow, people still use ipods? Cool.

+1 for pointing about blank ways could mean advertisements. Of course, that would mean somebody would have to sell them.

by charlie on Aug 17, 2010 6:09 pm • linkreport

@charlie +1 for pointing about blank ways could mean advertisements. Of course, that would mean somebody would have to sell them.

hmmm ... can we think of any local transit authorities that might benefit from additional streams of revenue ... Let me think ... These would be in a tunnel leading to a Metro Station ... hmmm ... WHAT ABOUT WMATA? (assuming they own the tunnel ... or a local jurisdiction/authority that could be persuaded to let WMATA use it for more than just egress and ingress owns it). Of course, the only problem would be that with the quality controls WMATA has in place, we'd have to worry about these posters falling off the walls ... and hitting passengers in the head ... Oh well, there goes that good idea. ;)

by Lance on Aug 17, 2010 6:16 pm • linkreport

>Is there an authority on urban design, or a common source that folks typically refer to?

Yes. The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

by BeyondDC on Aug 17, 2010 6:21 pm • linkreport

Fascinating that the mere mention of kids murals frames the entire conversation....
The links provided to NYC subway wall treatments reveal a few additional ideas that are far more classy, relaxing, beautiful, etc than any kid mural or advertisement could be.

And speaking of ads - stunning to me that anyone would ASK to see more ads. Regardless of what they are for. (And not as if you can choose which ads to see....) Definitely NO to ads, from my POV. Blank walls are far superior.

by Josh S on Aug 18, 2010 8:57 am • linkreport

I would be down with this if they could produce something that is actually interesting. I know of two in particular that I used to pass every day that were kind of....blah, to put it kindly.

Philadelphia publicly funded mural artists with cool results.
There is a lot of cool art, just out on the street. Of course hiring graffiti artists in the DC area would never work. A few nosy neighbors would flip out and kill the whole project, thinking it would incite gangs and poor people to run amok.

by matt on Aug 18, 2010 9:09 am • linkreport

@Josh S. And speaking of ads - stunning to me that anyone would ASK to see more ads. Regardless of what they are for.

Yeah, it's funny to think about, but I bet most of us would rather see ads in a place of the blank walls shown in the picture above. I think the reasons are two-fold, those blank wall really are foreboding and with the absense of other folks in the tunnel, would deter many of us from using it ... or at least from wanting to use it. Also, ads can be informative ... and unlike murals, will change often, not have a political message attached to them, and be generally kept up since someone has an interest in seeing them kept in good order (i.e., the ad company handling the posting.) Now, if this were a nice sunny outside wall, I'd probably prefer the 'leave it alone' option. But it's not.

by Lance on Aug 18, 2010 9:12 am • linkreport

I'd definitely be in favor of more ads in places like this, especially if art is not an option. It's simple: I like color more than I like dreariness.

by BeyondDC on Aug 18, 2010 9:40 am • linkreport

Lance -

Of course there is an aesthetic preference here and there is not much point in debating the "attractiveness" of blank concrete versus framed posters for Excedrin.

However, on the merits and characteristics of advertisements in public spaces, I think there is room for reasoned debate. You assert that ads don't / won't have a "political message" attached to them. I guess it depends on your definition of "political" but ads certainly DO have political messages, whether blatant or not. I don't know what the rules might be for an underground tunnel that may or may not belong to WMATA, but certainly politicians have used billboards. But even restricting ourselves to private companies, I think it's pretty hard to remove politics from ads for McDonnell Douglas and their warplanes, for example. What about oil companies who buy ads to declare their commitment to "energy independence" or "green energy" (as BP used to do...)?
As for informative. Are you referring to PSAs? Like - Give a Hoot, Don't Pollute? Or - Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires? Or Just Say NO? Or do you mean how you can learn about the existence of a new erectile dysfunction drug that you didn't know existed before? Or the location of a new Applebees? Maybe you mean how the Smithsonian will advertise a particular exhibition? Or the National Theater can advertise its current production?
All of these things include information and so I guess are defined as "informative" but are they all valuable? So if I walked down a blank tunnel and then compared my life with that experience with my life after walking down a tunnel filled with ads, what would I conclude? My life is improved by ads in this tunnel? I don't know, but I'm skeptical.

BeyondDC - again, it's an aesthetic thing. But if art is not an option and ads weren't an option - couldn't you just paint the wall a nice bright yellow? I wonder what would happen if four of us wore painters clothes, bought several gallons of yellow paint and just showed up one day and painted the damn thing. Would the county come back and somehow paint it grey or something? It sounds as if the tunnel gets little use so it seems unlikely anyone would "report" us as we were doing it.

If Lance came, he could paint an ad for Rice a Roni.

by Josh S on Aug 18, 2010 10:08 am • linkreport

This is now getting laughable. That tunnel is simply a convenience for crossing the road, i.e., an alternative to the "oooh - spooky tunnel!" is TO CROSS THE ROAD ABOVEGROUND at a signaled, generous, and clearly marked crosswalk used by hundreds every day. If Metro riders are so messed up they can't cross the damn road or walk in a tunnel beneath it, there is no hope.

by Jeez Louise on Aug 18, 2010 10:10 am • linkreport

In Crystal City, we treat concrete as canvas. We use creative works from local artists to infuse color and character into the fabric of the area; building fun, vibrant, and interesting spaces for Crystal CityÂ’s guests, residents, and employees. You can learn more, and see our Art Walls, at our website:

by Angela Fox on Aug 18, 2010 10:12 am • linkreport

I have been thinking this for years now. DC needs more and better public art. The person who mentioned the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program is absolutely right - it is an inspiration. There are over 3 THOUSAND murals in Philadelphia. They involve local neighborhoods and artists to create murals that local people can take ownership of. It enlivens the city while engaging people in their own neighborhoods.

I DO think that graffiti artists should be incorporated. This is exactly how the Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia was started. There is a lot of creative talent out there that can be channeled in more positive directions. And - Grafitti Art can be amazing and fantastic and beautiful.

by CBrown on Aug 18, 2010 10:56 am • linkreport

Those Crystal City artworks are great. I could definitely get behind some of that. But once again, that's my personal aesthetic preference. There may well be public enthusiasm for what can be affectionately called "kumbaya murals."

Now that I think about this some more, the problem with subway ads in the DC area, compared to NYC, is that we are a bit too afflicted by "lobbying ads" of the type directed at congressional staffers trying to convince them that giving more money to Lockheed Martin for a new fuel transport is a good idea.

by JustMe on Aug 18, 2010 10:57 am • linkreport

Interesting discussion here...I'm glad someone likes the maps in the Duke Street Pedestrian Concourse. Since public art of this nature has a long approval process, it is often long and arduous to get anything through the government bureaucracy. Most artists don't have the fortitude to deal with such hassles esp. when they know their "public art" may be costly to them in time in materials but not equally appreciated in payment or opinion.

WMATA has a RFP (request for proposal) process as well to be open and fair to all those who might want to participate rather than be exclusive to one or several artists. One solution for this to really be Public Art is to allow the public to contribute to the artwork and therefore, they also have "ownership" of it. This creates positive awareness and accountability for the protection of the art within the tunnel as well as a more interesting and friendly place to walk.

There is a project called the Big Draw that primarily happens in England the month of October and is gaining international recognition. If WMATA wants to improve their image, gain the public's favor and increase their marketing with positive exposure, I can see this idea being a win win. Paint the walls white. Have anyone who wants to participate pay a set fee with proceeds going to a predetermined charitable cause and let this event occur in coordination with the Big Draw -- bringing the advantages of public art to the forefront with the recognition that it brings people and communities together.

by Casart on Aug 18, 2010 11:56 am • linkreport

Problem with the spot in the picture is there is a conflict on who actually owns it. Metro, the owners of the buildings that were built above, and Arlinton all claim to not own it and it does nto appear on the property records. Therefore that is why nothing has been done on the walls.

by JB on Aug 18, 2010 1:41 pm • linkreport

First person to plant a flag in the floor gets a free tunnel!

by Bossi on Aug 18, 2010 1:43 pm • linkreport

The Court House tunnel was really just a convenient example. I meant this post to be general, not specific to that one site. If it doesn't work at that location, OK, but what about the 10,000 other blank walls in the city?

by BeyondDC on Aug 18, 2010 7:07 pm • linkreport

@Bossi First person to plant a flag in the floor gets a free tunnel!

And we can charge a toll! Wanna help build a toll booth there? ;)

by Lance on Aug 18, 2010 9:52 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us