The original idea was derived by environmental scientists at Allegheny College, as a greening the gateway for Meadville. Meadville has a long history in many regards. Apparently this small rural town used to be a resting point for people traveling between New York and Chicago. The town is noted for the invention of both the zipper and the channel lock pliers.
The idea of "Greening the Gateway" was to encourage businesses to return to Meadville and highlight the strong sense of community within the town. The students saw the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (Penn DOT) building, located in a key public location, was painting the wrong picture for the town. The fence in front of the building was a standard mesh fence with a dead embankment leading down to the road. In plain view, behind the fence were heaping mounds of gravel and industrial equipment.
Students began to experiment with solutions to solve the problem. A first attempt was planting greenery in front of the fence. Care was taken in selecting plants that had a high tolerance to salt and traffic pollution because of the roadside location. Despite the precautions, the plants died.
The next idea was to use discarded road signs to craft a mural which would cover the fence and turn it into a work of art. This idea was brought to the director of Penn DOT and accepted. The signs that Penn DOT remove from the roads, either because of age or damage, are scrapped because the cost for repainting and repair outweighed the cost of just getting a new sign. The students would take these signs and recycle them into art. This is how the sign fence project was born.