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Coloring the Urban Experience

Color does not add a pleasant quality to design – it reinforces it.

 –Pierre Bonnard, Painter and Printmaker

Consider the role color plays in an everyday urban experience, how and why.  No  matter that some aspects of color in the city are naturally occurring;  manipulation of color is well within the reach of most city dwellers, and is one of the most easily and affordably altered urban characteristics.

Here are ten observations.


  • Defines different facets of the natural environment and contrasts the natural and built environments.
  • Further differentiates elements of the built environment, such as building types or features.
  • Highlights people as well as places.
  • Is an indicator of commercial activity, and subliminally compels attention to vendors and merchandise.
  • Contrasts and defines messages on public and private signage announcing regulation, location and the opportunity for transaction.
  • Brightens rights of way and frames journeys across alleys, roadways and in various modes of transport.
  • Whether natural or artificial, can illuminate the urban night, and can provide a sense of safety in darkness.
  • Provides visual contrasts that stimulate the urban experience.
  • Can be particularly uplifting when enhanced by the sun, especially sky and water blues, vegetation greens and building-paint reds.
  • Can be used to awaken and inspire as part of a local improvement effort.

The following international images illustrate these observations, and, how in defining the urban experience, color is a major influence.

How can we marshal the potential of urban color while retaining a legally appropriate balance between public regulation of the private realm? I suggest this question is as important to cities—and far less discussed—than many other elements of today's urban agenda.

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For a recent provocative view of the role of color in architecture, see last year's post by Ana Maria Manzo, here.  Click on each image for more detail.