The Intersection of Public Art and City Planning

Posted by Meredith Frazier Britt, Sep 04, 2014 7 comments

Meredith Frazier Britt Meredith Frazier Britt

I am a city planner who can’t stay away from public art. I just finished my capstone project for my master’s in city and regional planning at Georgia Tech, and true to form, I studied commonalities between public art and planning goals in the Atlanta region.

My interest in public art began with art history in college. I trace it to a flashbulb memory of a beloved professor snapping to a slide of Claes Oldenburg’s imagined (but never constructed) intersection-blocking monument in New York City. I loved that this piece would so fully obstruct the activity of city life, interrupting our regular routes of walking and driving, imposing its message on our thoughts.

Claes Oldenburg, Proposed Monument for the Intersection of Canal Street and Broadway, N.Y.C, 1965. Claes Oldenburg, Proposed Monument for the Intersection of Canal Street and Broadway, N.Y.C, 1965.

In studying art through textbooks, I was most attracted to work that changed social structures. This attraction eventually leapt out of the textbook, and today, I meet living-and-breathing artists who engage with their communities and want their work to be a source of community transformation. This description sounds a lot like the way many city planners feel about their work, and they want the art to be involved in their efforts. But in most places, there isn’t a regular happy hour or coffee meet-up for artists and planners. Far from it. I think this lack of interaction needs to change.

Planners are great partners for socially-minded artists that produce public art because they are connected to the processes that guide change in communities. Here is my quick and dirty of the processes of city planning and how public art practice is a favorable ally for that work:

  1. Planners organize community conditions into data that they analyze and evaluate. They choose certain characteristics to document (for example: demographics, traffic counts, flood plains, neighborhood associations). They look at changes across time and consider factors that may have led to those changes. They provide data on interventions in cities that elected officials or decision makers want to see when allocating money for public investments.

Public art collaboration: Public art can create changes in the conditions planners track across time. It should be included as a factor in community evaluation.  Inclusion acknowledges public art’s role in community change. When this presence is affirmed with data, great things can happen. Elected officials can allocate resources in accord with public art’s effect on communities. Artists can use this data to make decisions about the most effective locations to work, and communities can also offer more artists more directed input on the changes they would like to see in their communities through art.

  1. Planners listen to community members. They talk to people who use the places they study. In these conversations, planners ask themselves questions all the time. How can I effectively communicate? Is this information reaching as many affected people as possible, and is the group I’m talking to representative of the community? Am I translating the desires of the community appropriately into a plan? Will this plan be used by elected officials and community members, or will it end up on a shelf somewhere?

Public art collaboration: Artists are gifted at manifesting concepts and spurring people to think in new ways. If citizen engagement processes involved artists, more people would likely contribute to processes that include the fun and rewarding production of art, alongside a written plan.  This collaborative public art can embody  community values and aspirations, serving as a marker of a social contract between community members and local government to ensure that visions become reality.

  1. Planners create strategies. They write plans to guide community investments that affect employment opportunities, health conditions, housing and transportation costs, and the environment.

Public art collaboration: When I’ve talked to planners about why they want public art, they often say “to increase quality of life.” This goal is honorable but amorphous. Public art can be more thoughtfully integrated into specific planning strategies. For example, in a neighborhood facing high rates of obesity and diabetes, a collection of interactive and inspiring public art pieces can encourage physical activity. This public art intervention, in concert with a wider strategy for better health, could help a community reach measurable public health goals.

And the artist-planner relationship is reciprocal. Planners can ensure cities have spaces that work well for all types of public art: temporary works; performance art; and permanent work, whether standalone or integrated in the urban environment. In the past, planners did not prioritize these kinds of spaces, so carving them into the landscape posed challenges.  However, planners today create policies that encourage walkable communities that provide public spaces and, thankfully, better accommodate public art.

Across the U.S., it’s not difficult to find artistic practice that espouses community transformation. Likewise, it’s hard to find a place that does not want the arts to be a source of change in their communities. There are many entry points for collaboration along planning processes, and each discipline can be more effective, inspiring, and transformative with the participation of the other.

As a newly-minted city planner, I’d like my career to sit squarely at the intersection of arts and planning (Oldenburg callback reverently intended). I’m open to meeting artists and planners there for coffee any time.

The Emerging Leaders in Public Art Blog Salon is generously sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University.

7 responses for The Intersection of Public Art and City Planning


September 08, 2014 at 2:43 pm

Hi Alison, it would be great to talk with you. I'd love to hear about the work you're doing in Sacramento. Feel free to contact me any time!

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September 08, 2014 at 2:39 pm

Terrific! Would love to talk with you and colleagues more about the Atlanta scene -- not to mention the Boston scene -- and about the Lab itself; maybe we join up, right?

All best,

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September 04, 2014 at 10:44 am

Hi Meredith...saw the headline, read the article, and it resonated like crazy. Having gone through approximately nine lives before finding salvation through urban planning (went to MIT for an MCP), I worked as an urban planner for Goody Clancy (Boston-based) for ten years, left in 2012, and started what became BostonAPP/Lab: Incubating new collaborations for art in public places. MIT drilled into me, as did my subsequent work via Goody Clancy, the fundamental imperative of civic engagement -- something I continue to push via the Lab (check out the website -- or @bostonapp -- to get a sense of what I and other have been or are up to). To the point, in fact, where I assert (and haven't had a single tomato thrown at me) that art in public places is -- or should be -- the ultimate manifestation of civic engagement.

All best, Meredith. Hope we'll stay in touch.

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September 04, 2014 at 1:34 pm

Thanks for sharing, Ron! Just looked through your site, and love the work you're doing with BostonAPP/Lab. I noticed you guys have a directory of artists, administrators, and other professionals in the arts. I've been talking with another planner, and we're interested in getting something similar going in Atlanta--a collection of people interested in utilizing the arts for engagement in planning processes. I'll be in touch soon!

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Alison Wells says
September 04, 2014 at 11:46 am

Hello, I am an artist with an plan for an attraction for the city of Sacramento! Please, lets meet for coffee soon. I love Sacramento & thank you for posting this article. Look forward to lifting spirits :) alisun

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September 29, 2014 at 9:28 am

Hi Greg!I'm so glad that there's grant money out there rewarding and incentivizing this kind of work. Achieving funding for a project through ArtPlace would be such a recognition of and opportunity for artists and community builders in Atlanta. I think there are others here with interest in ArtPlace, and we should absolutely get a group together to discuss.

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Greg Ponder says
September 26, 2014 at 1:57 am

Great article Meredith. Atlanta has never been awarded and ArtplaceAmerica grant I've got tons of artists and a boatload of passion. I believe that a partner who's rock solid on the urban planning side, and who can help aggregate supporting data and affiliations is what I'm missing. Check out the site listed above (you may already be familiar). It seems like a tremendous opportunity. Perhaps this could be discussed during the dinner we discussed...

Greg Ponder

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