May ’15: Art and Public Space

Text and photos by
Jarkko Bamberg

Art has been a recurring topic throughout the current academic year in the IASR. We have discussed the relationship between science and art, particularly the ways art can inform and affect our academic work. Perhaps we’ve also learned something about public art in ancient cities during our winter seminar in Athens. I want to carry on this discussion by posing the question: what does art do in and for public spaces today? An obvious role of public art is to enrich the urban environment, but it is involved in many other ways as well in contemporary cities.

Branding and place marketing

My first example of public art is Cloud Gate, or “the Bean” as it is commonly called, in the Millennium Park in Chicago. The sculpture is made of shiny, reflective steel. It is quite remarkable, reflecting the surrounding buildings and skyscrapers of the neighborhood. The shape of the sculpture makes reflections warped.


The sculpture is there to be viewed as an artwork, but at the same time it transforms how we see the buildings and the environment nearby. It is quite clever in this sense, interacting with viewers to make them see the place in different ways. But it is clever also in another sense. The sculpture’s reflective steel surface tempts visitors to take pictures of themselves with some surreal effects. Such pictures are perfect for sharing on the social media, which makes the sculpture an ideal monument of the selfie generation. In effect, visitors are invaluable place marketers for the city and important for its economy. Actually the Cloud Gate is the second biggest tourist attraction in the Chicago area.

Social critique and new perspectives

Graffiti and street art are obviously forms of art used as social critique. Street art can raise issues of poverty or equity, for example. For me, street art is special for it often toys with materials and physical structures of specific places. Street art invites viewers to shift their perspective of the place and to think differently about the place.


Street art can also turn our attention to details in the urban environment that would remain invisible otherwise. Social critique and new perspectives are prevalent, for instance, in the work of Banksy, one of the most famous street artists of our time.

Urban regeneration and gentrification

However, non-commissioned street art and graffiti play also other roles in cities. One finds street art often in declining industrial and residential areas. In the neighborhoods where street art abounds, it serves to support and mark youthful and creative atmosphere of the place. This atmosphere draws young people and supports experimentation with new businesses. One can see such development in many areas such as Williamsburg (New York) and Prenzlauer Berg (Berlin). This seems to be a global trend at the moment.


The areas can get a push for the local economy and community they need from this atmosphere. Urban regeneration is usually discussed as a top-down process, in terms of urban planning projects. In contrast, street art can be taken as a bottom-up element of urban regeneration. But in many cases, the process inevitably leads to gentrification, for the rents get high and new businesses attract different customers than residents that used to live in the area.


Urban art is apparent in East Harlem, or ‘El Barrio’, in New York, where one of the city’s largest Latino communities lives. East Harlem suffers from severe social issues. According to Wikipedia, the neighborhood has the highest unemployment rate in New York, the highest violent crime rate in Manhattan, the largest concentration of shelters and facilities in Manhattan and the largest concentration of public low-income housing projects in the United States. Public art is a source of empowerment for the community in this neighborhood.


The mural titled The Spirit of East Harlem is a telling example. It took several years of work before the mural was completed in 1978. It covers the whole wall and depicts real persons living in the neighborhood. The community values the mural and when it has been threatened, people have been ready to defend and preserve it. (An article in the Uptowner newspaper captures this significance of the mural.) Urban art empowers people in El Barrio by contributing to place attachment, supporting and generating an affective bond to the place and community.

Urban planning and governance

Because street art has been recognised as a source of empowerment, it is used to engage the public in certain planning and urban development projects. For example, in Chicago, planners acknowledged the need to preserve the existing artwork along the Bloomingdale train line, which is about to be transformed into a walking and cycling trail (called the 606 trail), with park-like features (like the High Line in New York ). The idea of the 606 trail is also to provide spaces for new public art along the novel trail. So street art can be used in urban planning for public engagement and for building an attractive place image.

Another way in which public art can be used in urban planning can be found in the city of Jyväskylä, Finland. Two 130-meter long rag rugs have been painted on Väinönkatu Street in the city center. According to city planners, the rag rug welcomes people into the living room of the city, in other words, the walkable city center. Väinönkatu Street is a kind of shared space area, where the rag rugs are reminding drivers to slow down. So public art can give people hints about the use of the place, and it can direct the way people interact and move about in their environment.

Reclaim the streets!

Last but not least we should keep in mind how art can help us make public space into our own. A good example is Kansallinen katuliitupäivä (the National Sidewalk Chalk Day) in Finland, an event that was initiated because a housing company in Jyväskylä denied the tenants’ children’s right to draw on the sidewalk. The event encourages children and adults to be creative in the streets all over Finland. The event took place for the first time in 30 May 2015, and it was a great success with thousands of participants.