More Neighborhood Aesthetics: Utility Wires

While we’re on the subject of street lights, how about we discuss utility wires, too? I realized that my favorite neighborhoods often have underground utilities. Granted, the suburban street where I grew up, had many utility wires and they served as great entertainment: I bet I can throw the ball over the telephone wires and you can’t! (Yes, I do have a competitive group of sisters.) But there was no denying that those streets without wires everywhere were more attractive, and still are.

Think about your neighborhood and the highway miles that you drive. Do you see above ground utilities most of the time? Probably. What do you think about them? I’ll admit that power lines running along lonely stretches of rural highway call to mind long road trips and early highway development, however accurate or inaccurate you can consider that. Still, I don’t want power lines blocking scenic America.

So, let’s consider municipalities and neighborhoods. What are the advantages of underground utility lines? An assortment of documents can help answer some of these questions. Preliminary Engineering Study and Concept Plans to Bury the Wires and Tame the Traffic in Waterford, Virginia by R. John Martin, P.E. addresses the benefits and offers visual comparisons of the streetscape before and after placing utilities underground (see pages 12-15). Note that Waterford, VA is a National Historic Landmark district.

The nonprofit organization Underground 2020 stands for its TEN year initiative that will promote the relocation of overhead utilities underground by the year 2020 (10% each year), and has written a white paper (i.e., an authoritative report focused on a particular issue) on the subject, Advantages of Underground Utilities. The paper categories these advantages as: (1) Potentially Reduced Maintenance Costs, (2) Improved Reliability, (3) Improved Public Safety, and (4) Improved Property Values (see page 5).

What about the disadvantages? Cost is the largest deterrent. Placing all wires underground and essentially changing our infrastructure? Yikes. Even with the long term payoffs, most people prefer the short term savings. Costs and considerations must be given to archaeological resources and studies as well as wildlife and water resources. And repairs, perhaps less common, would require more time, machinery, and money, I would guess. Project reviews, studies — this would spur job creation!

How do you feel about overhead utility lines? Should the crux of the push for “undergrounding” be safety? Does that make it seem like a more important issue, and then aesthetics and property values are a bonus? Yet, at that same time, I would argue that aesthetically pleasing environments make happier, which translates to a better quality of life for all.

If you have more information on this subject, I’d love to read it. Underground utilities seem to be more common for new developments, but the conversion from above ground to below ground is not as common as say, improved street lighting.

What are your thoughts?


5 thoughts on “More Neighborhood Aesthetics: Utility Wires

  1. Jen says:

    I like the analogy that has been made, when referring to using alternative energy like solar panels, wind, or other “controversial” things on historic buildings that we are very accustomed to seeing power lines connect to homes and on our streetscapes, and have come, even , to overlook them as nearly invisible to us. Do they take away from historic resources? Sometimes. But, quite often we need to trust that people are smart enough to interpret the historic element and separate the different parts that contribute to the story of the “whole” of a historic resource. Underground utilities are wonderful and it will be interesting to see how this develops. But also, we need to recognize the practicality of our utilities and not overlook that people are smart enough to distinguish between the really old (historic resource) the sort of old (power grid) and the really new (solar panels).

    • Kaitlin says:

      Jen, I very much agree with your comment: people are smart enough to identify old and new, but there is very likely to be confusion between historic, old, and new. Good point. I think underground utilities would make the most sense in a historic district or NHL district whose period of significance predates power lines and telephone wires.

      I suppose if we consider the days of trolleys and overhead lines, we could potentially argue for keeping those outdated power lines in place if the period of significance fell during its years of operation. Know what I mean? I don’t mean to say that I would advocate for such a thing, but a consideration of the technology and the built environment should go together.

      And, completely away from preservation, just in terms of aesthetics, the landscape often looks more pleasant without utility lines, in my opinion.

      • Jen says:

        I actually have to honestly say, I’m probably one of the people who looks “right through” power lines, unless I’m really studying an area or district–or, unless they are egregious and distracting! If possible as a solution to NHL’s, I think that is great. I just think that a lot of people look right through power lines and accept them as part of our lives, so in some neighborhoods, preservationists may have to “pick their battles!”


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