Public Works: Manhole Art




Public Works: Manhole Art

A small way to make our streets nicer.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.


Manhole covers have traditionally been functional: a fast route for City workers (and urban explorers) to get underground. As street fixtures, they’re appealing in a steampunk kind of way, but generally not pretty or interesting.

Other cities are changing that, by using their manhole covers as canvases for street art.

Japan has led the way. The Japanese began rethinking the manhole cover back in the 1980s and today some 95 per cent of Japanese municipalities have taken advantage of the idea to brighten up their landscapes. The arted-up covers range from the cartoonish to designs representing more serious aspects of Japanese culture (for a great overview, check out the Flickr page Japanese Manhole covers).

While the Japanese have pioneered the art form, the concept has caught on elsewhere. From historical themes in Trondheim, Norway to First Nations designs in Vancouver and Seattle, cities around the world are taking this small step to making streets more interesting. (You can see these and a few others in the gallery above.)

The trend has yet to spread to Toronto, but our walkable city would lend itself to neighbourhood specific designs: musical themes to celebrate the rock and roll heritage of Queen Street West; culturally themed covers for China and Koreatown, in Little Italy and Little Malta; cartoonish brawling douchebags in the Entertainment District. Maybe we can use some of that billboard money for public art to pay for it?