Should Planning Mandate Public Art?

By Brodie Blades.

Public Street Art (Source: WeekendNotes).
There is an interesting juxtaposition between public art and traditional perceptions of town planning. On one hand, public art (at its most basic level) is typically perceived as a fluid and creative expression of humanity whose contribution to the built environment and quality of life of residents is intangible. On the other, town planning is typically perceived as analytical, process driven and rigid, and capable of making highly measured and anticipated contributions only to human environments. Yet at the intersection of these two extremes is the reality that each is necessary for the creation of the very best public urban environments, and it is at this intersection where the question arises as to whether town planning should seek to systemise urban art by mandating its creation.

The forms and benefits of public art within the built environment are obvious and numerous. One only has to walk through the streets of Melbourne's Fitzroy or London's Shoreditch to gain and immediate sense of the placemaking and character contributions made possible by local artistic communities through graffiti, murals and wall art. Or stroll through Barcelona in present times (with its political graffiti and draped Estelladas) to gain a small insight into the social tensions of a community divided. Likewise, sculpture and statues play an important part in recounting the historic narrative of a city and the forebears of its population, and performance spaces allow for the organic exchange of social capital and the reinterpretation of space and place. The contributions and possibilities of public art really are as profound as they are endless!

Whilst almost all (if not all) local and state governments in Australia recognise this and have active arts programs and policies to guide and foster public art contributions, I'm personally intrigued by the notion that public art is something that can be 'required' within development through planning policy. Take the below example from a current planning control in Melbourne for example (one example of many):

Far from this article being a subjective exercise in what has worked well and what has not in this particular Council area, instead I am equal parts fascinated and challenged by the prospect of whether mandating public art contributions through development assessment can ever be done truly successfully. Can something as complex and organic as art really be confined, measured, articulated, captured in policy and then assessed as another 'box to tick' within a statutory town planning development assessment process, and still achieve meaningful and high quality public realm outcomes? Or does this type of approach simply steer our public realm on a collision course toward a future congested with tokenistic box-tick contributions conceived as meaningless responses to process only?

Perhaps the approach should be to not translate a uniquely social expression of humanity into legislation and planning requirements, but to instead consider the unique and organic nature in which public art contributes to our built environment and respond accordingly. Incentivising funding contributions to local artistic communities in exchange for minor planning concessions could be one approach, as could deliberately fostering incidental and organic public art within new development through built form design that strategically encourages this whilst still responding to CPTED principles.

The irony in all this, of course, is that a significant proportion of Australian capital city development typically contributes to the gentrification of areas and the displacement of the artistic communities most capable of making the types of contribution sought by policies such as the one above, which suggests that the fundamental planning issue is one that transcends traditional development assessment processes and rests at a far more ‘strategic’ level.

What do you think? Do you think planning processes should require public art contributions? Have you stumbled across any particularly successful outcomes in response to such policy? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


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