Reclaiming public space | The Triangle

Reclaiming public space

Public art brings communities together

Candy Chang, the fifth lecturer to speak during Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Lecture Series, propped up the first “Before I Die” wall on an abandoned building in 2011 with the intention of creating a public space where members of the New Orleans community could share their aspirations. By the next day, the chalkboard was full of neighbors’ dreams and reflections. Today, there are more than 500 “Before I Die” walls around the world.

The wall is iconic for its Instagram-worthiness, but lesser known is Chang’s first public art piece, “Sidewalk Psychiatry.” Her concept is simple: Chang selected a few introspective questions such as “Does she know how you feel?” and “Then why did you do it?” and stenciled them on the sidewalks of New York City.

In doing so, Chang presents the idea that public spaces need not be the opposite of privacy, as public space is property of the community and, by extension, the individual. Intentional design that encourages open creativity in public areas communicates to the individual that he has worth in his community and authority to contribute his own skillset and opinions, even in the overwhelming expanse of the world outside his private space.

Chang’s other public artwork includes community chalkboard walls in South Africa, educational brochures that communicate New York City street vendors’ legal rights with graphic design instead of jargon and “I Wish This Was” stickers pasted onto vacant buildings along with a Sharpie for passersby to share their thoughts for the space.

We need not wait on pieces from street artists like Chang to consider designing our public spaces intentionally. Without convenient and anonymous platforms for individuals to share their ideas, we may be missing out on the contributions of such ideas to our communities.

Steven Johnson, the author of “Where Good Ideas Come From,” described diverse communities that foster the exchange of ideas as

According to Johnson, such innovative environments flourish today not because the environment itself is smart but because the individuals who inhabit it get smarter simply by being there to add to its idea pool, whether directly or indirectly. The liquid network is dependent on the open exchange of ideas within communities regardless of whether these networks are based in workplaces, neighborhoods, religious organizations or other public spheres. Fortunately, the people that make up such communities are each endowed with influence in a multitude of such networks, leading to a virtually infinite amount of merged ideas.

A brief on arts and culture in public spaces released by the American Planning Association outlines four key points of urban planning, all of which emphasize that collective local culture is the determinant of a community’s future. In the context of urban planning, culture includes regional qualities such as history, landmarks, dialects, food culture, architecture, wildlife and so on.

The brief cites revival stories of down-and-out communities similar to the New Orleans neighborhood that housed the original “Before I Die” wall. By opting to design according strictly to a region’s rich heritage and cultural practices, urban planners have managed to bring neighborhoods once facing poverty resulting from industrialization to experiencing a revival of local culture through public art and events. By providing a space for the diverse passions of individuals within the community to mingle and build upon one another, areas that were once unsafe to walk in during the day have now become parks, night markets and community centers.

The allure of such success stories is that upswing depends not on any single person or group’s endeavor to solve every problem at once, but rather the opportunity for individuals to draw near with their thoughts and passions, just as they are, in order to apply old skills to envision something new. History’s greatest innovations tend to be attributed to thinking outside of the box, but in reality, their inventors bring them about by drawing upon different disciplines and applying them to a new one.

In order to create communities that allow members to grow with one another, we must use public space deliberately in a way that celebrates the diversity of our communities. By reclaiming public space as the stake of the individual, we can transform the overlooked and abandoned spaces into fluid networks, by extension, supportive open communities.

The ideas are out there. Should we choose to rethink the opportunities we have to interact in public space, then those occasional flashes of wonderment that come when we encounter something bigger than us, like when we experience art or share our aspirations with each other, will overflow into our networks as we live deliberately with those who share them with us.