Urban Landscapes: The Art of Bringing Us Together

UrbanLandscapes_TriplePunditBy Megan McAuliffe

Amy Casey‘s art packs a punch by tapping into the whimsical nature of contemporary urban living.

The Cleveland-based artist creates large canvases full of sprawling landscapes, propped up on stilts and bound together by enormous ropes, each piece featuring a building she has photographed in real life. The wonder is in the imaginary mass of urbanites floating around inside the buildings, and what ties them together in their vast landscapes? All her paintings portray an image of strange togetherness, while provoking a feeling of stark loneliness at the same time.

The world depicted in her paintings is clearly a playful but telling reflection of our own.

Surreal landscapes make tricky connections

Staying connected to community in our increasingly built-up environments is an issue of significant importance.

By 2050 nearly 70% of the world’s population—some 6.29 billion people—will live in cities. That is up from just over 50% today. Where will all those urbanites find places to breathe, to pause, to share ideas, to gather and be productive as social animals?” Co-CEO of global design firm David Gensler.

While concerns stem from the seemingly insurmountable problems associated with housing and transport in cities so highly populated, an underlying issue sits at the core, how do we create cities that connect people so they don’t get swallowed up in the burgeoning expanse?

Art knits communities together

In a study by the Knight Foundation called Soul of the Community, it was discovered that there are three main factors which attach people to places; openness, social offerings and aesthetics. In other words, we are more likely to feel attached to our communities when there is a sense of togetherness, when there are spaces we can socialise in and if our physical surroundings are cared for. And linking all these offerings together is art.

“Public art can create community attachment, if we overcome perceived barriers and open pathways for engagement.”

Interestingly, the study revealed that what we feel in a place, and the emotional connections we create, are more important than education, basic services, safety and economy.

Urban planners, geographers, researchers and thought leaders are helping knit all these factors together to ensure the cities of the future are a buzzing network of emotionally connected people, rather than bland urban landscapes full of the walking dead.

At the Aspen Ideas Festival last year, Dennis Scholl of the Knight Foundation spoke about the importance of artistic and cultural funding and placemaking in the development of urban life, factors which he believes make a city “sing.”

There’s a confluence of circumstances that finally makes it the arts’ turn. Maybe because of the financial crisis, people have stopped dropping multi-billion dollar stadiums in places and chasing companies to bring them in and are looking instead at the organic bubbling that goes on in communities. Social offerings are the most important things that people care about in their communities.”

A sense of place matters

Placemaking is a philosophy, originated in the 1960s when journalists like Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte created the idea that cities need to cater for people, rather than catering for cars and shopping centres. Put simply, placemaking is about connecting people to place.

There are many levels of specialties in terms of placemaking. It can encompass large-scale projects that involve how people move around in a city. Or it can be applied at a micro level, by simply creating a place to sit in a park or cafe.

And then there is the “nano” level, a term coined by designer Richard Wolfstrome. This is where placemaking gets to the heart of the matter and connects people to a place emotionally. It’s designing spaces at the grassroots level with a narrative in mind. 

Wolfstrome’s projects are inspired by the meaning behind a place – its soul. This is achieved by unlocking historical stories and looking at the way people work, play and interact with an environment. The design firm makes use of topography, graphic artworks, installation and wayfinding to breathe life into a space.

The design team recently worked on a retail development on the South East coast of England where an RAF airfield once stood. The jewel in the project was the Grade 1 listed art deco control tower which had been left standing. They discovered that the RAF pilots of the time developed their own slang language, and through engagement with the community they used historical references and language in the various artworks throughout the scheme.

“There were stories from the past that were so moving they almost made us cry. It’s real, engaging and heartwarming. And people can take ownership of the place because they have been involved in the process.”

Wolfstrome believes that even though the global village has helped us become more connected as a whole, we have fallen asleep and our communities are suffering. We’re not connected at the basic level. If you give community ownership, a place flourishes.

And so does the economy

The Soul of the Community study also revealed that “Communities with high levels of attachment actually have higher local GDP growth.” Chicago is an excellent example of a vibrant city thriving under the promotion of its placemaking scheme, where community involvement in the creation and care of public spaces has had a positive impact on local economic growth.

As we look around our cities we see so much wasted space, which we accept as permanent fixtures on the landscape. We need more opportunities to dip our feet into fountains and plant petunias in community gardens. Or visit an art exhibition which has sprung up in a vacant lot. Without this type of connection to places, and without the space to breathe, cities will not thrive emotionally nor economically, no matter how well connected they are on the broadband grid.

Just like the Australian Aboriginal belief system known as The Dreaming, we are starting to wake up to the knowledge that place and our connection to it, is sacred.

Megan McAuliffe is a writer, journalist and blogger writing for sustainable and ethical buisness’ on issues relating to community, culture and lifestyle. You can find her on Twitter @Mxxsy.

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One response

  1. Megan, this is a great subject for discussion – “…we are starting to wake up to the knowledge that place and our connection to it, is sacred.” I only wish that you had mentioned the importance of “trees” in your otherwise fine article on developing sustainable urban ecosystems.

    Understanding the Sacred Bond We Have with Trees

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