Take the Strong Towns Public Art Challenge

It's Public Art Week at Strong Towns. For the next few days, we'll be discussing the value of art in public life, the impact of public art on our neighborhoods, and how to ensure that public art is created by and for the people, not through a top-down process.

Here are some words you might associate with public art in your city: permits, permission, permanent, pretty-much-required-that-you-have-artistic-talent. But today, Strong Towns member and graphic designer Haile McCollum is here to prove you wrong--and issue you a challenge.

As Gracen Johnson showed us yesterday, some of the greatest public art sparks a process, or at least a conversation in your community about the space you all occupy together. Haile’s temporary chalk-art piece (above) makes you stop, look and wonder--and it can be a great, bottom-up way to let your community and your local decision makers know how you want your world to be built.

And the best part? Anyone can do it. 

Here's how to make your own conversation-starting, public art masterpiece, with Haile's suggestions for achieving maximum success. Once you've finished reading, we challenge you to take this on in your own town, then show us the results.

Step One: Gather your supplies.

Not amazing at free-hand chalk artistry? No problem. Here’s what Haile suggests you gather up for your project:

1. Stencils. Order a custom stencil from StencilEase.com if you want to replicate Haile’s design all over your town. (Click on custom stencils and select the "stencil" font. Haile used 3 inch high letters and 7.5 millimeter material. Total cost is $51.95 including shipping). Or buy a pack of basic alphabet stencils from your local craft or hardware store for about $7.00. 

2. Chalk.  Choose a multicolored chalk pack from your local craft aisle (Crayola costs about $4.95), or if you’d really like to churn out the art, consider picking up a few colors of spray chalk, available in craft and hardware stores near you.

3. Duct Tape. You’ll use this to hold your stencils in place and make your design shine (about $3.37.)

Total cost for this project: between $15.50 and $60.27 (or less--this is a great opportunity to steal your kids’ sidewalk chalk.)

STEP TWO: Pick your spot.

For this piece, placement is everything. Haile recommends that you “Look for places where bikes are leaning up against walls or trees, in front of coffee shops, near playgrounds and other gathering spots. It’s best to place bike racks within 50 feet of the entrance.”  We also published an excellent guide from Dero, What Makes a Great Bike Rack, last year.

Step Three: Tape it up

Especially if you’re using a complete pre-made stencil like Haile, be sure to tape it down before you begin drawing to make sure your letters are even. You might even leave a duct tape or chalk X above your stencil, to make it clear exactly where your rack should go--as Haile says, “X marks the spot, right?”

Step Four: Color

Now for the fun part. Haile recommends using as many colors as you can to really grab the eye. “The whole point if for it to be noticed, so have fun and make it vibrant,” she says. It’s also a great way to get kids involved--this really is a project for everyone.

Step five: Show It Off

This public art piece is designed to disappear with the next rainfall, so be sure to immortalize it. Take a picture on social media and tag it #STPublicArt. (For bonus points, write the hashtag below your design in chalk, too). And pass it on; tag us, your local streets department, your neighborhood association, your local bike advocacy organization, and anyone who you want to involve in this conversation about making your town stronger.

We challenge you to complete this art project by May 30 (I bet it would make a great Memorial Day Weekend activity). Tag us in to your social media posts or send your photos and reflections to team@strongtowns.org and we'll publish the best examples on our site in June.

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And of course: feel free to make it your own. Adapt this basic template to make eye-catching, provocative, and easy public art about anything that you think would make your town better. Here are just a few ideas for effective street messages from Haile and our team:

  • Mimic Candy Chang’s “This Would Be A Nice Place for a Tree” stencil to scout great places for street trees.
  • Create a temporary bike lane in chalk and write a message to your neighbors about why a permanent protected bike lane would be even better. (Obviously, be mindful of traffic and stay safe on this one!) 
  • Small business owner? Stencil out the impact of your small business on the sidewalk outside your door. Show how many jobs you provide, how many visitors your storefront brings to the neighborhood, how many local artists’ work you sell...anything that shows how you make your place stronger than your neighborhood big box.
  • Dead-end sidewalk in your neighborhood? Why not point it out? Stencil out a message for your planners that you’d really like to keep walking here.
  • Find an empty parking space and write exactly how much it cost your city ($2,500-$4,000 in most municipalities) to build that empty stretch of asphalt. Jobs created by that land: 0.
  • Stroad nearby? Why not write a message in the pedestrian island or right before the crosswalk: “You can make this stroad easier to cross. Go to StrongTowns.org.”

Now get out there and make some thought-provoking art. Don't forget to use the hashtag #STPublicArt to show us your work. 

(All photos by Haile McCollum)

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