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.


The author playing on a sculpture in St. Louis, Missouri.

The author playing on a sculpture in St. Louis, Missouri.

For me, the best public art is art that lets people climb and sit on it. Physically engaging with our environment and art can help us to fall in love with the places we live in, and it can make our places feel like they love the human bodies that fill them. Clambering around on a sculpture, helping your friends up, and smiling at strangers at the goofiness is a way to make your body, and the public space it is in, feel fully alive. It opens up the joy of physical movement and it invites us to experience art by touching it and not just looking.

To be clear, I do not think all public art should be climbable. Art is vital for memorialization, reflection, and decoration. In many instances, climbing on art is disrespectful and destructive, and it violates the integrity of the art. However, we should occasionally make room for the kind of art that invites us to play with our surroundings.

The need for well-designed playgrounds for children that encourage appropriate risk-taking, physical activity, whimsy, and social interaction is well recognized. We should not forget that adults also have the very human need for these experiences. Climbable art can be a playground for adults and just like a playground, it can be designed to engage people with different levels of ability and risk tolerance.

As humans, we all have different levels of tolerance for risk. When we try to stop people from engaging in risky behavior that endangers others, like driving at high speeds, we have to recognize that for many people, the desire to feel risk is going to show up in different ways. People are already using buildings and plazas to experience risk through skateboarding and parkour. Public sculptures that challenge us to climb them are one way to let people indulge in measured risk. Careful design can allow people with different levels of risk tolerance and different levels of physical ability to experience the art.

Art that challenges us to climb also invites us to play and move our bodies. Exercise seems to be the closest thing to a miracle cure that we have; studies suggest even small amounts of exercise are correlated with lower mortality. Climbable public art rarely requires a vigorous workout, but it is still an opportunity to get people to jump from one place to another, or use a bit of muscle to push themselves to the top of a sculpture. Land use and transportation matter more to changing physical activity, but climbable sculptures can help add a little bit of exercise into our communities right now.

While public fitness equipment might encourage more exercise, it does not make people smile the way public art can. At the Strong Towns Summit, Jason Roberts of Better Block talked about the importance of making places feel romantic in his projects. For many people, at least judging by romantic comedies, the chance to laugh and be silly is essential to romance. Climbing on sculptures and fountains wakes us up and makes us laugh. It gives us a reason to laugh with our friends or romantic partners as we fail to get a foothold or awkwardly position our limbs. It helps to build romance.

A hydraulophone water pipe organ serves as public interactive art in Ontario, Canada. (Source: Glogger)

A hydraulophone water pipe organ serves as public interactive art in Ontario, Canada. (Source: Glogger)

Climbing also gives us a reason to talk with strangers, as people help each other up or give instructions about what the best route up the sculpture is. The shared experience of challenging ourselves and physically exploring art gives people a connection that can start conversations or just encourage smiles. In the book Happy City, Charles Montgomery argues that this type of informal social interaction is correlated with greater happiness.

Funky Bones by Atelier Van Lieshout invites people to jump and play on the sculpture. (Source: Marielle Brown)

Funky Bones by Atelier Van Lieshout invites people to jump and play on the sculpture. (Source: Marielle Brown)

We should look for opportunities to incorporate climbing, sitting, playing and general whimsy through public art, when appropriate. It may involve grappling with questions of liability and insurance at the municipal level, but the payoff will be more joyful, active and social places.

(Top image source: Austin Kirk)


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marielle Brown, AICP, is passionate about helping communities create lovable places that work for people of all ages and abilities. She worked at Trailnet, a non-profit in St. Louis, on bicycle and pedestrian planning, transportation policy, and tactical urbanism for five years. She recently moved to Seattle, where she continues to advocate for better streets and fiscally responsible transportation. In addition to her planning work, she has first-hand experience with multi-modal transportation planning around the world through her experiences living in Beijing, Hiroshima, Paris, and Seoul. Marielle received her Master's in Urban and Regional Planning from Portland State University.