Public Art, Public Space and Great Places
London's graffitti by Matt Ravier.

London graffiti. Photo by Matt Ravier.

The concept of the “Do-It-Yourself” (D.I.Y.) city is far more complex than stereotypes of young people pasting posters to walls or hastily drawing bike markers on streets. Take, for example, our post on Latino New Urbanism about how immigrants are shaping their communities and transforming public space in nuanced ways by using salvaged materials, bright colors, sidewalks and other assets to develop and improve a neighborhood. The concept of public art in the public sphere is broad. It can be anything from an art installation to a temporary “action” or advocacy campaign to engage, educate and incite public involvement to repairing a blighted block.  This can include things like organizing critical mass bike rides, such as Washington, D.C.’s recent “Tweed Ride”, painting a simple mural, or making temporary chalk markings on a sidewalk.

Public art shows that residents have an interest in their city—their blocks, neighborhoods, streets and fellow citizens.

These types of projects are tactile, unlike a lot of abstract digital tools. What we can really see and grasp with our urban hands is what makes an immediate difference, especially in high-crime neighborhoods or areas with vacant buildings. The Project for Public Spaces says good public spaces— from markets to corners to intersections—jump start local economies, encourage volunteerism and tourism, attract investments, lower crime rates, improve pedestrian safety and public health, increase the use of public transportation and improve the environment.

Bikeportland reported on a “guerrilla crosswalk” in Portland, Ore. “If someone put up an unauthorized stop sign, we’d go take it down,” the City of Portland says, “but with pavement markings, they’re typically using materials that won’t last very long so it’s maybe something we say, give it a week and it will be gone. If not, we’ll send out a crew to blast it off.”

Temporary crosswalk on East Burnside at NE 8th seems to be working

Temporary crosswalk on E. Burnside at NE 8th in Portland. Photo via Bikeportland.

Portland is also home to one of the original city placemakers, City Repair. The organization works on improving intersections and any other glaring issues in the city, creating maps, benches, art and landscaping. One technique the volunteer group employs to slow traffic involves applying color and reflective surfaces to busy intersections. The goal is to get people to care about their city. They call the street and public areas the “landscapes of [our] lives” and the organization hopes to “shape those spaces in a way which create a sense of communal stewardship and lived connection.”

The original City Repair intersection that features a mural, book exchanges, free boxes, community notice boards, cob benches, a kid's playhouse and a 24-hour tea station.

The original City Repair intersection that features a mural, book exchanges, free boxes, community notice boards, cob benches, a kid's playhouse and a 24-hour tea station. Photo by donkeycart.

The Urban Repair Squad of Toronto runs a website that aggregates images of D.I.Y. urban repairs in public places. One recent example GOOD Magazine highlighted documents painted images on streets where bike lanes in Toronto should go, according to the group. Some lanes in the city end abruptly, resulting in a patchwork of bike lanes. This particular project is more of a statement than anything else, pointing to the senseless nature of many urban projects, reminding city officials and residents that neighborhood watchdogs do exist and their voices are important.

Urban Repair Squad imagery. Photo by Martin Reis.

Urban Repair Squad imagery. Photo by Martin Reis.

Another example is the concept of memorial employed by the GhostBike initiative, which, through the installation of bikes painted white, locked near the intersection of a traffic crash, brings together the bicycling community and those whose friends or families have been the victim of a fatality or injury. The bikes function as simple memorials and reminders of the deadly nature of often anonymous street corners. According to the site, they are “quiet statements in support of cyclists’ right to safe travel.” In the end, the project hopes to “inspire more people to start installing ghost bikes in their communities and to initiate changes that will make us all safer on the streets.

A gho.stbike in New York City. Photo by Ludovic Bertron

A ghostbike in New York City. Photo by Ludovic Bertron

Working to encourage this kind of creativity and citizen engagement in neighborhoods that need it, the Citizens Committee of New York City has a Love Your Block grant program where New York groups and associations can apply for micro-grants to beautify and revitalize blocks, “whether it be painting a mural or sprucing up the length of the block with brand-new planters and saplings.” New York City government even provides tools for residents to repair their own sidewalks.

The examples of such efforts are numerous and can change the perception of space and associations with a community. We thought we’d highlight how something as simple as color or the reuse of a vacant library or a parade down a city street can change a place, intersection or neighborhood for the better.

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