A colorful neighborhood in the literal sense in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Doesn’t it make you smile? Photo Credit: favelapainting.com

Ever since returning to San Antonio last fall (see my story: “Where I Live: Deco District“), I’ve been struck by the drabness of the San Pedro railroad underpass just north of Hildebrand.  It is such an ugly color, deliberately painted to blend in with the detritus of traffic.  Yet it has such good art deco “bones”.

Somewhere in that ugliness is the potential to turn an eyesore into one of the most visually exciting places in the city.


This …
… Could become this! (Happy Holidays!)

Just kidding, but it got your attention, didn’t it?  Martha Stewart would be proud.

While different people may react differently, color can be a very important influence in people’s state of mind.  The psychology of color has been used by companies for marketing and sales. In general, red is stimulating and raises emotions and excitement.  Visualize a Target store and all its branding, artfully intended to get you to buy their merchandise.  Red can also be perceived as danger or a threat, as in the bullfighter waving his cape.  Red can have a strongly negative effect – such as “seeing red” in anger.  In a recent study by Professor Andrew Elliot of the University of Rochester, people responded more forcefully and strongly to the color red than to gray or blue1.

On second thought, we probably shouldn’t paint the underpass red.  We don’t want San Antonio’s drivers being even more forceful and angry, do we?

The “cool” colors at the blue end of the spectrum tend to be calming and evoke the feeling of gazing at the sky or sea.  Green has long been a symbol of growth, fertility and by extension hope and faith.  It has recently been shown by Dr. Elliot to enhance creativity2.

The meaning of color also needs to be understood in a socio-cultural context.  For example, in Western countries black is the color of mourning, while white has that symbol in some Asian countries.  And there can be very different individual responses to the same color, depending on people’s personal experiences.

Surprisingly little is known about the long-term effects of color on health, but I would imagine that colors associated with positive psychological responses would also be positive for health.  Colors have been used in healing as chromotherapy in alternative medicine. However, many of these reports are anecdotal (one or a few cases) and have not been supported by rigorous controlled studies.  Much of behavioral psychology is based on studies using small numbers of people, not exactly a true representation of the population.  If you are interested in learning more about the psychology of color, I refer you to everyone’s favorite “authority,” Wikipedia.

Now, moving back to the underpass, I hope I’ve convinced you that it could be much more interesting, even a landmark, if it were painted in colors.  Indeed, there could be a contest to select the design.  I would vote for traditional bright Mexican colors, such as turquoise, purple, and orange, as a tribute to our history.  Or perhaps the colors of wild flowers in the Hill Country. Whatever the scheme, it should emphasize the interesting architectural elements of the structure.

I’m not sure who owns the underpass.  TX DOT does maintenance on state highways such as San Pedro, which is officially Texas State Highway Spur 537.  The railroad may own the bridge and its associated right-of-way.  Getting different agencies to cooperate may be problematic, but it shouldn’t be impossible.  I’ll look into it.

Perhaps this idea of a colorful underpass has been tried here in the past.  It would be helpful if someone who knows would post comments on its history.

There are precedents elsewhere.  In Baltimore the Howard Street Bridge over the Jones Falls Expressway has been painted several colors:

Howard Street Bridge in Baltimore, MD. Image from Google Maps Streetview

Public art and color even comprise an entire neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, the Santa Marta favela, envisioned through the Let’s Colour Project:

A colorful neighborhood in the literal sense in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Doesn’t it make you smile? Photo Credit: favelapainting.com

Yes, it would be work to paint the underpass, but it has to be painted anyway.  And yes, it would have to be periodically power washed and re-painted to keep the colors bright, but again, that would be no different from business as usual.

There are many opportunities for using color in a planned, intentional way in San Antonio to brighten our lives.  San Antonio’s Color Revolution could start with the San Pedro Underpass.

Who knows where it will lead?

And the red-and-green underpass with hanging garlands?  That was just a little visual wish for all you Rivard Report readers to have a Very Metro Christmas.


1 Elliot, A.J., & Aarts, H. (2011). Perception of the color red enhances the force and velocity of motor output. Emotion, 11, 445-449.

2 Lichtenfeld, S., Elliot, A.J., Maier, M.A., & Pekrun, R. (2012). Fertile green: Green facilitates creative performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 784-797.

Dr. Betty Dabney is a semi-regular contributor to the Rivard Report.  She retired from the faculties of Texas A&M’s School of Rural Public Health and the University of Maryland School of Public Health.  She has also worked for the Maryland Department of the Environment, for Fortune 50 companies, and has been an independent consultant in environmental health.  She was on the Maryland Governor’s Commission for Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities. In her spare time she is a fine-art photographer: bettydabney.com

Avatar photo

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org