Katie on Public Art

Happy Holidays!

When I started this blog, I stated my goal of posting weekly. Apparently that hasn’t been happening, and it seems that a post around every 2-3 weeks is more realistic. It’s not due to laziness, but moreso the time it takes to answer the question ‘what do I write about this time?’ I’m only a second year student who admittedly only knows so much about planning to support enough content to write a full and worthwhile post, so I take this question very seriously! However, the answer finally hit me in the face on Christmas eve: write about the role of public art in communities.

The way I think about and perceive communities today was initiated by a walk in my grade 10 art class, where a public art activist brought our class downtown to see where public art could make the downtown space more friendly. I specifically remember standing on the Century Place concrete thinking what landscaping could be done to remove the gray that permiated through the downtown. Below you can see just how bland the space is with a lack of a particular focal point or even seating which could encourage people to stay and converse.

When you hear the words ‘public art,’ a lot of things might come into your mind. And, with how vast visual expression as a concept and as a realization is, your mind should be full with a bunch of things when you hear those words. Public art is a focal-point sculpture; a fountain; a paid-for graffiti artist or muralist who passionately draws life into a once-boring red brick wall. Public art is not limited to what you can see: buskers and street performers are also a valuable form of public art. Anything that appeals to your senses and enhances a public space through creative expression is my definition of ‘public art.’ (See this page for more information on the definition of public art.)

With that said, you can begin to understand the role public art plays in cities and their communities, neighbourhoods, and downtowns. Self expression is a natural response to experiences that we have in our every day lives, and is what drives humans to manifest their self expressions into what we deem ‘art.’ It can be asked, then, that if art is created from personal experiences, then how is public art created and expressed? Public art attempts to capture the attention and, consequentially, the emotions from passersby at a general level. There is something for everyone within a public art piece, whether that be the colour, the shape, the size, the texture, the positioning, or their interpretation of the piece.

With all of these interpretations and opinions of the piece invisibly floating around a community, the passersby are engaged in the space even when they don’t fully realize it. This engagement (if the public art was a success) attracts people to the space again and again, which is good for a downtown, for example, where people would revisit and the local economy would consequentially grow. Successful art peices promote conversation between friends — and, with an even greater deal of success, strangers — which makes the space a more interesting place to be.

It is okay to question why public art is so important to spaces. At face-value, it can seem like a question that can only be faced with circular reasoning: ‘public art makes places interesting, okay, but why is that important?’ ‘Well, you know, because it makes places interesting!‘ We initially resort to this quick answer because it is natural for us to want to be in a place that isn’t boring. Boring places make us unenthused, make us want to be elsewhere, and actively change our emotions while being in that boring space. We as people constantly want something to entertain ourselves with, whether that leaves us looking at news feeds on our tiny handhelds or stopping to look in storewindows or people-watching. We live off of our opinions of things, events, and people, and our short attention span reflects that. You may notice that when you are in a boring place (vaguely self-defined as containing what you personally perceive as ‘boring’) you may be annoyed, agitated, or just plain bummed out. This can be compared to an exciting and interesting place with conversation-pieces and entertaining events in which you might notice you are happy, engaged, and interested. Public art is important to spaces because of its effect on that space and on the people who visit that space. This, in turn, makes the space more vibrant, which could very well have a positive effect on the space’s performance economically, socially and environmentally.

To better describe what public art can do to improve a space, we will go back to Century Place in Belleville, Ontario. Let’s look at that picture again:

Ahh, yes, a drab concrete slab right at the major intersection of Belleville’s downtown core. This area is actually a major hub for pedestrians and drivers, either passing through, working, or spending leisure time within the downtown core. Perhaps you have walked through here and noticed how empty this space is – or perhaps you haven’t even really thought about it at all. It really is an empty canvas just waiting for something – anything – even planters to bring a little life to the space. Having been there myself, I can tell you the only thing for people to sit on in this space is one small and lonely concrete bench which is often taken up by a smoker not many people want to sit beside.

As someone who has a huge passion for downtown Belleville’s history, I almost take offense to the lack of public art here. Public art can and often does take on a civil service of historic commemoration, and I touched upon this in my last post. Belleville’s downtown has an intricate and interesting history and in the most traffic-heavy space in the downtown core there isn’t even anything that offers passersby a connection to it.

Take a look at some of the many projects that cities and communities around the world are doing to enhance public spaces for the passersby there, in hopes of making the space more engaging, interesting, and vibrant and, in turn, lifting passersbys spirits if even just a little bit.

An example of sustainable and purposeful public art can be found in Sherbourne Common, Toronto, where stormwater is cleaned and runs through the park in a visually engaging structure:

A very simple yet functional and effective design in Baltimore, Maryland encourages creativity and playfulness while waiting for the bus:

Even something like creative paving and lines on a space like what was done in Copenhagen by the Bjarke Ingels Group can offer a sense of creativity and engagement to people of all ages while just walking through a space:

Public art is more than just creating an engaging space for people and encouraging them to look, listen, converse, stay a while, then come back later. Public art offers a sense of identity to cities, communities, and most importantly their people: shoppers, residents, workers; all classes, all ages, all races and speakers of all languages. What is more cool than a free art show in your community? Consider what public art there is to experience in your community, and how it makes you feel. If your city spaces are boring, what can be done to create interest in that space? Maybe you’re not an artist, but you are the one who’s looking at and experiencing the art when it is installed — what do you want to see and experience in your public spaces?

Here are some links to consider as 2016 comes to an end:

The pros of graffiti

The case for temporary public art

Paying for public art (Ottawa)

Popular and controversial street artist: Banksy

Katie on the Role of History in Cities

blvlWhen I was around 12 years old, I found pictures of what certain stretches of Bridge Street East looked like in 1953 on Google Earth (the image above is not one of them). Since then, I’ve loved wrapping myself in research of Belleville’s history. It’s gotten to a point where, as I walk around the city, I can recall architectural histories of specific houses right off the bat, and I can tell you what businesses used to be in what buildings in the downtown core. Aided by old city directories, insurance maps, and pictures, I find it so addicting to learn what the city and streets used to look like; I love being able to appreciate how my city grew and developed.

When people think of city planning, it’s common to think of it in terms of the future. This makes sense – the word ‘planning’ naturally refers to the future. However, planning is so diverse, and it encompasses something I would love to take part in during or after my studies at UWaterloo – heritage planning.

It kind of sounds like an oxymoron, but heritage planning focuses on the preservation and protection of cultural heritage so that historic aspects of the city can be appreciated as the city grows and changes again over time. It is because of heritage planning that you can appreciate century-old architectural gems in your city, museums, and commemorative statues that reflect your city’s historic accomplishments. Historic preservation aims to preserve and celebrate the city’s (or town’s, or neighbourhood’s, etc.) identity.

It’s rather difficult to justify why heritage planning is so cool as someone who has a natural passion for city history, but I will try. As cities grow and expand, it’s important to reflect on what had influenced the growth of a city in the first place. It’s a form of respect that the city and its culture deserve. Without a sense of history, the city risks losing a sense of identity. Think of a city with no roots to ground it; a city that becomes a whole new entity with every change of plans. A city like this can not physically exist – it is natural for cities to have a story detailing its growth and it is the responsibility of planners to manage and celebrate meaningful parts of this story through appropriate and respectful design and policy decisions. A city without a sense of identity is a desolate place; such an empty identity would result in a lack of connections between the city and its people.

That being said, what does it mean to me to be a Bellevillian? Should this have any significance anyway? I connect growing up in Belleville in the early 2000s to how I could have grown up in the early 1850s, 1900s, and so on; considering all of the beautiful ‘vintage’ photos I have looked at and town plans I’ve read, I think that Belleville has so much interesting history to learn and I’m happy I’ve become a part of it as a Bellevillian. Additionally, I argue that your demonym does have significance. Where you grew up/where you live has a huge influence on your growth as an individual. Of course, to be a Torontonian, for example, is not the only aspect of one’s self. However, to be a Torontonian would mean you grew up in a very multicultural, dense, and evergrowing city; it would be silly to suggest that this has not had any effect whatsoever on how you grew as an individual and what kind of person you’ve become with whatever interests and whatever concerns. Your city reflects you, and you reflect your city.

Currently, I am in the process of learning what it means to be a resident of the City of Waterloo. I am definitely more connected with Belleville’s history (and, as a result, what sense of identity it offers) than Kitchener-Waterloo’s, but I still ponder the histories of the streets that take me to and from campus, the grocery store, and the bar (which is, to be honest, the extent of my travels here as a student). Currently, I consider myself more as a student than a citizen here, but I can’t ignore the fact that I live here and spend my money here. Still, my Waterluvian identity is carefully unfolding.

Now it’s time for you to consider what significance your demonym has. What role does your city’s history play in the significance of that demonym? If you don’t even know anything about how your city came to be, I encourage you to take a look. It doesn’t take a trip to your city hall to learn more about your city’s history; you can easily find Facebook pages or blogs that post vintage photos of your city’s neighbourhoods that are, at face value, just plain cool to look at. You may not find it as addictive as I do, but you’ve been warned anyway.

Below are some links to get you interested in (or at least acquainted with) Belleville’s interesting and glowing history.

My favourite image database – Belleville History Alive

The Glanmore Museum

Heritage Properties Belleville

Vintage Belleville and Area Photos