Colorful intersections are about more than art

Jun 29, 2019

Rochester’s latest piece of public art has become the most recent in a series of eye-catching intersections in western New York and across the country.

It’s a movement that is more than artistic. Urban designers and transportation planners say this kind of art – colorful crosswalks and engaging sidewalks – leads to safer intersections, stronger neighborhoods, and better public health.

And with pedestrian deaths in the U.S. at a 30-year high, those planners say, finding new ways to protect people from cars is becoming more urgent.

Local artist Shawn Dunwoody's keyboard-inspired crosswalk at Main and Gibbs streets in Rochester is the latest in the region's growing number of eye-catching sidewalks and crosswalks.
Credit Brett Dahlberg / WXXI News

One of the first places the idea took form in Rochester was outside the Phillis Wheatley library on Ford Street. Bright sidewalks painted with colorful designs and kid-friendly games lead up to the library’s entrance.

“It’s a place where people want to be,” said Jenn Beideman, who works at Common Ground Health and managed the project.

 “The sidewalk is no longer just a place to get across to get into the library. It’s a place to spend time, and to play,” Beideman said.

The latest location is at Main and Gibbs streets, near the center of the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival, where local artist Shawn Dunwoody oversaw the painting of crosswalks designed to resemble piano keys.

People strolling through the Jazz Fest on Thursday occasionally stopped to hop from one key to another.

People strolling through the Jazz Fest on Thursday occasionally stopped to hop from one key to another on Shawn Dunwoody's piano-inspired crosswalk at Main and Gibbs streets in Rochester.
Credit Brett Dahlberg / WXXI News

“Like the movie ‘Big,’ you know, where they’re playing the keyboard with their feet,” said Arian Horbovetz, who blogs about urban revitalization in Rochester and across upstate New York. “You’re not seeing that in a normal crosswalk. People are engaging the space.”

The designs also affect life far beyond the space they cover on the ground, Beideman said.

“They bring people out,” she said. “So you have more eyes on the community. You have more people taking ownership of the community, of the neighborhood. That means more people watching kids, more people watching the space.”

Colorful sidewalks and crosswalks build public health and neighborhood cohesion by encouraging people to be outside, said Jenn Beideman, advocacy manager at Common Ground Health.
Credit Brett Dahlberg / WXXI News

“It means more safety, and less crime,” Beideman said.

An environment that feels safe and welcoming for pedestrians also means more people getting around in ways that don’t involve cars, said Russ Martin, who directs policy and government relations for the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Colorful crosswalks create that environment, while also sending a message to drivers, Martin said.

“What we really aim to do is change the way that drivers think about other people on the road who are not drivers,” said Martin. “Everyone has a right to the road.”

And when infrastructure encourages active transit, like walking or bicycling, the result is public health gains, said Ruth Steiner, who directs the Center for Health and the Built Environment at the University of Florida.

“The way an urban area is constructed speaks volumes about how people will navigate it,” Steiner said.

“This is not an entirely new idea, using color to indicate pedestrian-friendly spaces,” she said, “but I would say I’m encountering it more often now.”

Across New York, the number of such spaces is growing.

The city of Buffalo is asking residents to help decide what color a new sidewalk will be in its Allentown neighborhood. New York City’s Stonewall Inn got a rainbow crosswalk outside for Pride Month. And more colorful crosswalks are slated for Rochester streets this year, with an emphasis on intersections near schools.