Preservation ABCs: U is for Utilities

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.

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U is for Utilities

This photo show two types of street lights and a traffic signal, without wires strung between structures. Imagine how different it would look with wires.

This photo (taken in St. Paul, MN) shows two types of street lights and a traffic signal, without wires strung between structures. Imagine how different it would look with wires.

Our streets, towns, and cities have telephone lines, fiber optic cables, cell towers, water lines, sewer lines, etc. These are utilities, and they are a fact of life for just about everyone (unless you’re choosing to live “off grid”). Utilities are most often above ground if you’re referring to wires and cables (see this discussion), whereas water and sewer lines are underground. All come into play in all sorts of projects, whether new construction, rehabilitation, or transportation, to name a few. The locations of utilities are important, as is the sustainability of utilities. Are underground wires the better choice for weather related problems?

While utilities wires are a necessity to modern life (until everything is wireless someday), the fact is that there are more wires than in the past. And these wires can obscure viewsheds to and from historic buildings (example seen here). Traffic signals, telephones, cable: sometimes these can be overwhelming in our view. Consider these questions. Should traffic signals have mast arms or overhead wires? Should street lights be attached to telephone poles or separate structures? Where should a traffic signal control box be located? To which part of the house should the utilities connect?

Not sure what you think? The next time you see a telephone pole, count how many wires are strung across it. How would your neighborhood look with wires or without wires (hence, they are underground)? The next time you are in a downtown or neighborhood core, look around. Do you see wires?

What do you think is the best solution? Undergrounding utilities is expensive, but makes an incredible difference, whether people consciously realize it or not.

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?