Major catastrophic events aside, we are and will continue to be an urban planet; by 2030 60% of us will live in cities. Ensuring that those cities are economically successful, liveable and functional will enhance human health and wellbeing; pleasant places is becoming a focus of research, technological investment and policy discussions on a grand scale. Art and artistic endeavour in all its guises, from major public works to small scale neighbourhood schemes, will also have a major role to play in creating attractive places and economic vitality.

What is changing?

Public art is changing. While ‘statues’ continue to be commissioned and installed in public places, interactive, large scale installations, light shows and temporary exhibitions, street art and community projects of numerous kinds are springing up in a variety of places.

Places such as Times Square or Piccadilly Circus have long attracted tourists with their light shows. Large scale events vary widely include a three week long interactive light show in Philadelphia based on 24 searchlights, whose configuration was voice controlled via messages on a website; a temporary exhibition on the beach in Santa Monica; the Berlin Festival of light and the Dumbo festival in New York which transform buildings with light shows and images; corporate sponsored events such as the one-day giant sun in Trafalgar square and the 4D virtual event for the launch of Polo perfume.

Community art projects are becoming a means to rebuild communities and local economies.

But it is perhaps the community initiatives which can do even more to transform and reinvigorate places and spaces.  The UK is not alone in facing a ‘high street’ crisis as shops close, building stands empty and town and city centres become run down. Community art projects are becoming a means to rebuild communities and local economies.

In a rundown community in Philadelphia such a scheme is transforming the buildings from grey and boarded up to vibrant artworks. It is also engaging with local at risk teens, ex offenders and substance abusers as well as the wider community. The aim is social and economic revitalisation. Nashville is examining how it can build on and continue to enhance its musical traditions, with varied spaces and places for performance and connection. In the Bronx, an underused empty building has become a vibrant arts centre by engaging with the local community on many levels. Street art is being celebrated in a new book containing over 70,000 examples of extraordinary images, and in Berlin the explosion of art on the Berlin Wall after it fell has been retained as a mile long exhibition.

Why is this important?

Competition for jobs and investment is fierce; creating attractive places and spaces to bring people in has never been more important. At the end of the 1990s, 80% chose the company or job as a determinant of location; now 64% choose the place, then find the job.

The creative industries have been recognised as a major and growing driver of the economy. An UNCTAD report estimated the UK creative share of Gross Value Added as 5.8% compared to France’s 2.8% and the USA’s 3.3%. Developing places that attract and foster creative industries, and encourage grass roots creativity is critical to that process.

Town centres are likely to continue to lose shops as we do ever more shopping online. Developing street art and community arts provides new ways to fill those spaces and create activity, connection and experience. The resulting transformation of spaces can in turn create the economic revival too.

As buildings and building materials become more intelligent, the use of light and graphic images to transform our streets and surroundings is likely to increase and become part of the cityscape. In Holland, they are experimenting with graphic images embedded in the road surface- for information as well as display – such technologies could be adapted to transform other paved areas; likewise buildings could become works of art in new ways with 3D images an integral part of the external shell.

Art and creativity are often seen as non-essential or separate in some way; but a growing body of research indicates that they are critical to urban renewal and vitality. Likewise, research into the aesthetics and nature of our surroundings and their power to create wellbeing, a sense of place and security shows that it is investment well made.

By Sheila Moorcroft

About the author

Sheila has over 20 years experience helping clients capitalise on change – identifying changes in their business environment, assessing the implications and responding effectively to them. As Research Director at Shaping Tomorrow she has completed many futures projects on topics as diverse as health care, telecommunications, innovation management, and premium products for clients in the public and private sectors. Sheila also writes a weekly Trend Alert to highlight changes that might affect a wide range of organisations.