The Value of Public Art: A Pocket-Guide to Defending Artful Environments
by Marissa Dionne Mead
It is a tremendously high honor to design for the public realm. To see a small piece of geographic space transform from dreary to adored feels miraculous every time. Here, I’d like to get specific about what, exactly, this transformational magic can conjure.
Public-facing art has a worth that can be underestimated, and its presence occasionally elicits ill-informed, even vitriolic, criticism from the public about allocation of funds. But I know that even the simplest community-based public artwork project can raise the social value of a place in ways that are both easily quantifiable, as well as those that simply cannot be measured in dollars and cents.
Public art can transform a place into ‘A Place’. And powerful places expand our experience, our knowledge, our social circles and our sense of stewardship.
Public Artwork (and Ornamentation) can do the following amazing things:
Offer something unexpected which motivates people to be curious, to look up, and to interact with one another. Comparable to the effect of walking through a museum, public artwork trains people to be on the look-out for beauty and meaning – sometimes spotting it in surprising places.
Solidify a shared local story. Meaningful artwork and ornamentation can provide a common source of pride - an identity not bound within the normal constraints in which we class ourselves. Public artwork, when done well, can foster comradery among people who otherwise simply pass one another on the street. Pushing people beyond their immediate social circles is the first step to bringing disparate communities together.
Remind pedestrians that their experience matters – that they matter. Wonderous places allow us to feel grand, and worthy, and important; and they stir us to see virtue in our fellow citizens, as well.
Subtly demand to be cherished and respected, encouraging residents to take part in the care of their surroundings – to be good neighbors.
Reduce crime by enhancing the walk-appeal of pedestrian areas. Adding foot-traffic increases the number of eyes on the street which improves the safety of these areas. Studies indicate that reducing crime-opportunity areas does not simply cause criminal activity to relocate but reduces the occurrence of those activities altogether. *
Bolster the service sector by promoting tourism. Visible and celebratory public places become local attractions.
Provide an opportunity for communal action. We often discuss the final product of community projects, but there is tremendous opportunity in the earlier processes of design and creation as well. The feeling of being proactive, and of being part of a community with a shared purpose, gives people a sense of fulfillment, comfort and hope.
The benefits of beautiful, artful, public spaces are simply remarkable! To suggest that public funds should be diverted from creative community-based work is preposterous. Both the creation and result of public art are an urban lifeblood, nurturing the health and vitality of ourselves, our neighborhoods and, ultimately, our cities. **
In some instances, nay-sayers may need to be reminded of public art’s many accomplishments. Though, I ultimately believe that the appreciation and desire for public artwork are innately human characteristics.
I was reminded of this recently, watching my children assemble a train set. In the middle of their build was a small purple engine on a pedestal. They eagerly pointed out to me that this was a sculpture. Its purpose was to let everyone know that this was a ‘great train town’, and they’d selected the two-sided engine so that a face would be visible from all sides.
They get it <3 And now it’s our job to keep them from forgetting it.
*Ruth Moyer, John M. MacDonald, Greg Ridgeway, Charles C.Branas, “Effect of Remediating Blighted Vacant Land on Shootings: A Citywide Cluster Randomized Trial”, American Journal of Public Health 109, no. 1 (January 1, 2019): pp. 140-144.
**Eugenia C. South, MD, MS1,2; Bernadette C. Hohl, PhD3; Michelle C. Kondo, PhD4; John M. MacDonald, PhD5; Charles C. Branas, PhD6,7, “Effect of Greening Vacant Land on Metal Health of Community-Dwelling Adults: A Cluster Randomized Trial”, JAMA Network Open, July 20, 2018