The word pollution implies a negative impact on our environment. When a reference is made to polluting the environment we commonly think of land, air and water pollution. The types of images we conger up are the dumping of chemicals into our environment, toxic smoke being released into the air, litter lining our streets and parks, poisonous chemicals flowing into our ponds & rivers, toxins and heavy metals penetrating our ground water supplies. But not all forms of pollution are toxic or physically harmful. Visual pollution offends our eyes and impacts our overall well-being. It can damage the economic health of a town or city; ruin a community’s “curb appeal.”

Our first impression of a community, rural, suburban or urban, is generally visual. What we are seeing is the visual environment. Natural and built components that reflect design, architecture, art and natural processes combine to create a mosaic of images we rarely think about, yet experience constantly. Change due to natural causes or human intervention such as development or agriculture is a constant feature of this environment. The visual environment is as much an important part of the fabric of our communities as clean water and animal habitat.

Imagine you are on a commercial street in a suburban community. Signs of all sizes, shapes and colors fight for your attention. There are signs on the buildings, signs in front of the buildings and billboards towering above the buildings. Overhead stretches a web of utility wires. Parking lots, expansive areas of asphalt and franchise architecture, housing a number of easily recognizable fast food restaurants and stores, greet your vision in every direction. This is referred to as visual clutter. Visual clutter occurs on many of our suburban and urban commercial streets. These visually cluttered areas are often the gateways to our communities; the roadways which lead into the commercial, tourist or economic centers. The visual impact of these sprawling strip commercial zones create a lasting image of the community; they over shadow the community’s individuality; its sense of place. Isn’t this a form of pollution – visual pollution?

How often do we simply look at and examine what it around us? How often do we question what is happening to the visual environment within our community? When we use the term visual pollution we are suggesting that the portion of the built and natural environment we are viewing has been downgraded. It has been made less attractive to us. Visual pollution is usually the result of design out of context or out of character with already existing elements. It results from failure to consider the relationship between new and existing components of the visual environment. Visual clutter, poor signage, out-of-context architecture, franchise architecture, excess use of poles and wires are just some examples of visual pollution.

Individuals determine differently what is attractive about their environment, based upon their own aesthetic senses, expectations and experiences. The visual environment is integral to our daily experience of the built and natural worlds. Yet, the altering of this visual environment is often taken for granted. There is an assumption that things change as time goes on, yet often little thought is given to designing and planning the changes in a way that positively, instead of negatively, impacts the visual environment. The introduction of cell towers into an area is a good example. To simply function, a cell tower is a tall wire metal structure. You can stick it any where - along a roadside, in the middle of a lush country field, along side the historic town hall. But the same cell tower will function just fine if it is blended into the environment by encasing it in an existing structure such as a bell tower or placing it on top of an already existing structure such as a barn silo or water tower. A little planning and good design can go a long way in preserving scenic beauty.

Visual pollution results in the homogenization of our communities and our loss of sense of place. Many regions and communities today are struggling to maintain a unique identity; that sense of place. When you pass that strip mall with the fast food chains, supermarkets and discount stores can you tell whether you are in the Midwest, Northeast or the South? Our current culture of mass buying and marketing, along with increased mobility subsidizes a growing tendency to substitute commonality for diversity. Franchise commercial architecture is an example of this trend. For economy, building designs are mass-produced for locations in every community creating a sameness about our commercial streets in every region, regardless of significant differences in context. Highways, signage, recreational facilities, schools, community architecture, building materials, utility poles and cell towers have also become homogenized from one area to the other. This homogenization impacts community values – what communities have described as their sense of self-worth, and the identify as distinctive places in which to live, work, recreate and call home. To retain regional identity, and for communities to retain their character, communities need to work towards keeping growth and development in character rather than letting economic pressures and the values of auto-bound consumers shape their viewscapes.

Identifying visual pollution and its appearance in the community is an important step in becoming visually literate and conserving community character across our country. Change in our landscapes and cityscapes is an inevitable and continual process. It can happen, however, without eroding the unique and individual character of America’s cities, towns and countryside, without erasing the result of history, culture and geography. A healthy visual environment promotes the values of those who live, work and play in that community; it promotes civic pride and economic health. Individuals and communities who care about their physical environment can make a difference in how growth impacts what we see. A community’s appearance should express uniqueness while reflecting its history, present vitality and future potential. It should be coherent and vibrant, not cluttered with visual pollution.


The DUNN Foundation
320 Thames Street
Suite 274
Newport, RI 02840
Tel : 401.367.0026

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