Colouring the City

"Experiencing outdoor art allows us to wander into the realms of creativity and connect to the community around us."

Our homes and our workplaces tend to be where we spend most of our time, but life’s also about the in-between moments to. The small pauses in life where we meet and mix or take in some air; the detour on the way to the destination.

There’s a more elegant way of describing the public spaces in society, where people of all ages and demographics mix together. It’s the ‘The Public Realm’: a kingdom for all. When done well, the public realm expands our horizons, makes us discuss and debate, collide with strangers, break conformity and a fixed social order. Play boule with strangers, if you’re in Paris. Play football with your mates, if you’re in England. We all need public spaces: at their most basic they provide a pleasant route in-between places; at their best they inspire and allow us room to mix outside of our echo chambers.

The built environment has a vast impact on how we feel each day, from the moment we close our front door and embark on the world, to the moment we come home at night. From concrete pavement slabs and graffiti-covered subways, to the grandeur of the traditional Georgian square – public spaces affect our wellbeing in any city.

Southbank, London

Public art projects can open up these possibilities for city dwellers. Experiencing outdoor art allows us to wander into the realms of creativity and connect to the community around us.  Art is a human impulse that has endured millennia, from early cave paintings to street art on the pavements or even ‘yarn bombing’, a form of urban guerrilla knitting – it’s about self-expression, rebellion, beauty and communication.

For example, there’s a public park called Superkilen that winds through the heart of Copenhagen’s most culturally diverse neighbourhood. Described as “not a complete and finished work of art, but an open art work”, the space symbolises the multiculturalism of the local community in Nørrebro, while bringing together urban furniture with green spaces, places for cycling and a town square. Throughout the park there are 57 everyday and not-so-everyday objects from the countries of the people who call the neighbourhood home. You’ll find an entire street painted pink, places to play Backgammon, as well as a Thai boxing ring, a fountain from Morocco and sculpture from Japan. As well as creating a truly candy cool hangout, the existing community was consulted on the chosen objects which brought together ethnicities, cultures and religions.

Superkilen Park, Copenhagen

And where art exists in a city, organic, grassroots creativity follows. You can see this phenomenon across the globe; from the public realm around the Pompidou in Paris which has long been associated with street art and performance, to Amsterdam’s ‘Art Square’, a social hub for meeting and gathering, and in Athens a new cultural centre, Stavros Niarchos Foundation, saw a huge artificial hill built over a library and concert hall, creating a public park.

The presence of wide expanses of open green space in cities has been directly linked to increased levels of exercise, which has a knock-on effect on mental health and wellbeing. Even in dense high-rise New York City, Central Park has always remained a civic oasis for fitness, sport and social activity. Studies in urban environments have proven that well-managed green space can improve social-ties in cities too, which ultimately improves trust and social cohesion amongst the community, reducing crime and even tackling depression and anxiety.

The High Line in Manhattan is a famous example – a raised landscaped pathway sculpted out of a disused railway track that has now welcomed 20,000,000 visitors. Designed in collaboration between landscape designer James Conner and architects Diller Scofidio and Renfro, the High Line provides a destination and a detour for New Yorkers and tourists alike, with its planted pathways for lunch time strolls or weekend walks. It brings nature into a built up neighbourhood where there was previously no space, while revolutionising how we think about the urban environment. Its success has even coined its own term: the ‘High Line Effect’; a ripple effect of public park reuse projects springing up across the globe. Instead of demolishing disused infrastructure, cities are looking for ways to repurpose it in a holistic way to benefit the community.

The High Line, Washington Grasslands, New York. Image by Iwan Baan

Cities are taking public space seriously, because it has a serious impact on our lives. We have seen how it can build bridges in communities, encourage creativity and gathering, improve health and mental wellbeing and improve social cohesion. The public spaces that colour our cities – the art projects, the pathways, the street furniture and the green space – are central to the physical connections we make with the people around us. And when the bonds are strong, our wellbeing improves, which all results in a happier, healthier city.