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Curious, I did a Google image search on manhole covers and discovered that I was clearly wrong about that. There is an enormous variety of patterns embossed on manhole covers world-wide. My interest was piqued. I wondered why municipalities would pay the extra money these designs surely cost?
It turns out that a lot of foundries will cast manhole covers, and that they're apparently not that expensive to buy. As for the designs, Crescent Foundry in India has this blurb on their site:
Over 5000 patterns are readily available for production. We have state of the art in house CNC machines for pattern making wherein we can develop new patterns with 2 weeks.So standard patterns are available, but custom patterns must still be affordable. Digging deeper, I discovered that many cities sponsor contests or commission artists to design their manholes. The website ManHole, which specializes in manhole art, history and what-not (you've gotta love the nooks and crannies of the internet) has this to say about manhole cover design:
Manhole cover design varies greatly from city to city, with each municipality balancing budget versus art. Some cities, such as Seattle, opted for a clever street map design on their covers, others went with city logos or seals. Most, though, choose a simple grid pattern, or checkered design. The reason behind a pattern or design on the covers is simple - traction - both for pedestrians, as for vehicles.At any rate, more pictures of Japanese manholes are after the jump, and you can find more at the links in the first two paragraphs of this post. Enjoy, and take time to give a second look at the manhole covers in your neighborhood, because they may be overlooked pieces of urban art.
As of late, manhole cover design is no longer something to be treaded on lightly. Cities like Vancouver, Seattle, New York and Tokyo have decided to pursue commissioned designer covers, giving their cities more than just a curiousity. In competitions to find the best designs, these cities have their communities actively participating in waste awareness, while simultaneously promoting a brighter and livelier city.