“Placemaking” is the term now commonly used to describe making the public spaces between buildings attractive. Placemaking is now a central concept in encouraging walking. Improve places and more people will walk in them. Improve the overall walking environment and experience, and more people will choose that mode of transport.
Which seems simple, but I’ve been struggling to work out when street art – including elements of council urban design, and also illegal/informal art like graffiti, guerrilla gardening and guerrilla knitting – contributes to placemaking.
My conclusion is that street art – formal or informal – should be welcomed if it has one or more of the following characteristics.
It helps makes a space into a place. A space isn’t a place if it is featureless. If you can’t easily describe it to someone else (“the one with the cabbage trees and piles of rocks above the little waterfall”) it isn’t a place. It’s a space waiting for transformation.
It makes the place feel more welcoming to everyone. Some public art and urban design just makes spaces feel formal, elitist, cold, intimidating, uncomfortable, hard to cross. Some urban design makes spaces feel suitable only for certain groups or uses, and makes those users feel they can exclude others. Informal street art can send a “this is our territory” message or make an area feel unsafe.
It keeps you there longer. The walker should want to detour to look at the art, stay and play with it, pause and think about it – not just walk through the space to somewhere else.
It adds something positive to the experience. More of the same is boring. And nasty is nasty. Good street art adds a new area of interest, or makes you look at a feature previously ignored. It makes you smile, not seethe.
It helps transform the negative to the positive. In Isaac Corbal’s work a pile of building rubble or an ugly puddle becomes a theatre for quirky tiny concrete figures. Mark Jenkins transformed the effect of old plastic bags trapped in trees by providing a packing tape giraffe to eat them.
It gives the opportunity for new activities. The art might be designed for these activities (chess sets, pianos, seats), or be able to be adapted to another use (e.g. sculptures kids can climb or walls people can rest on).
It helps connect us to the past. Street art can draw attention to the history of a place, or reference elements of the past. It can preserve pieces of the past (bits of old buildings, remaining native vegetation) that might otherwise be lost.
It helps connect us to what is already there. Andy Goldsworthy’s sculptures use leaves, twigs, snow, rocks, dirt, ice that are already there, and transforms them temporarily into art.
It makes you think. About the place, about the world, about colour…