Rectifying These Mean Streets: Percent-for-Art, Street Furniture, and the New Streetscape
40 Pages Posted: 17 Apr 2015 Last revised: 7 Aug 2016
Date Written: August 5, 2016
Percent-for-art ordinances beautify the urban public realm by creating dedicated and consistent funding for public art in urban public spaces, such as municipal buildings and parks. They dedicate anywhere from one half to two percent of the funding for qualifying projects to public art. As a consequence, it is a rare airport these days that has not been kissed by percent-for-art’s bounty in the form of whimsical, delightful, even challenging, public art. In contrast, the urban American street largely has been ignored in percent-for-art regimes. The urban street is as much urban public realm as these more conventional public spaces and is one of the city’s largest land uses. All too often, this street is one that is aesthetically mean - characterized by beat-up, pock-marked wooden utility poles, grey, lifeless steel street lights, and traffic signals dangling like last year’s Christmas lights.
The Article asserts that the streetscape and street are as much public realm as the airport, library, and park, and, therefore, are as deserving of public funding for public art as these more conventional public spaces. Currently, a number of percent-for-art regimes appear to be normatively biased against the street, but less so against street furniture. This paper similarly advocates that the definition of public art in a number of percent-for-art regimes be broadened to include the furnishings of the street, the utilitarian - even pedestrian - features of the urban streetscape that comprise so much of it and that do the people’s quiet bidding of collecting trash and recyclables (rubbish and recycling bins), lighting the way (street and pedestrian lights), protecting us from the elements (bus and transit shelters), and ensuring steadiness on our feet (pavement). Though they are utilitarian, street furnishings also have expressive potential and can be re-imagined as new canvases for a more contemporary public art that marries function and form, as compared to the conventional stand-alone piece.
This topic, as well as public art and percent-for-art ordinances generally, remain vastly under-explored in the legal academic literature. To date, there has been one article in a practice-oriented law journal that broaches the topic of public art within the context of percent-for-art fees in private development. This Article seeks not only to contribute to the legal academic conversation surrounding public art and percent-for-art ordinances, but also to posit that these ordinances should be expanded to capture expressly the streetscape and street furniture. Accordingly, this paper will delve into the literature of disciplines such as law, public art, urban design, and urban planning.
Broadening percent-for-art ordinances in these two ways helps to rectify the all too often aesthetically mean street in urban America. The effect would be to inject a dose of humanity, delight, and play into this major part of the urban public realm. Other reasons include activating and energizing the American street’s potential for street life, thereby helping to strengthen the urban fabric, attract sustained and desirable private investment, and bring art out of the museums and galleries and literally into the streets.
Keywords: Public Art, Applied Public Art, Percent-for-Art, Urban Public Realm, Streetscape, Street Furniture
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