How Public Art Makes Spaces into Places

CultureHouse Harvard

If you find yourself strolling through Harvard Square on a summer afternoon, you might notice two murals on the CultureHouse Harvard kiosk. On your left, the lush and vibrant colors of a mural by Valerie Imparato will draw your eyes to the three beautiful Black women gazing out into the square. On your right, the whimsical mural by Curtistic might cause you to puzzle or even laugh at the silly scene of an alligator falling from the clouds into the city skyline.

Why are these murals here? Is it really important to decorate our buildings and public spaces? It might be more important than you think. Public art can be found in cities across the world, from “The Bean” in Chicago to the Urban Light exhibition composed of 202 lampposts in Los Angeles. Public art, including the CultureHouse murals, is incorporated into many urban spaces and communities to create a sense of place.

Cloudgate (“The Bean”) in Chicago on the left, Urban Light exhibition in LA on the right

So, what is placemaking? Placemaking is an approach to designing and enhancing a public space so that it can take its place as the heart of the community. Placemaking seeks to strengthen connections between people and the places they share, and considers the physical, social, and cultural identities that define a space.

But how does public art contribute to placemaking?

Look up and Pause

The first, most basic, and possibly the most important thing that public art can do is catch your eye. Public art, with its bright colors or grand scale, demands your attention and causes you to shift your focus to the space that you’re inhabiting. What was once background becomes foreground, what was once filler becomes front and center. Your experience with the art, whether it inspires thought or affects your mood, sets the stage for forming a connection to the space that you’re in.

Sombrillas de Tlaquepaque, Guadalajara, Mexico

Appreciate the Aesthetics

Studies show that one of the major factors in whether people feel an attachment to a space is whether they feel that the space is beautiful. The aesthetic value of public art can cause a positive feedback loop. When public art makes a place more beautiful, it attracts more people, and people attract people. If you and your friends want to sit by a work of public art while you eat your lunch instead of eating inside, other people are likely to feel comfortable being in that area as well. A vibrant piece of art can create a vibrant street, and a vibrant street can foster a vibrant community.

See, and feel seen

“I hope [my mural] catches the eye of little kids, little black kids in particular, and that they see themselves. I hope that it makes Black people feel seen, and helps non-Black people see us,” says Valerie Imparato of her mural at CultureHouse. Imparato and artists like her want to use public art to foster community by making members of the community feel accepted, represented, and celebrated. Public art has the power to affect the identity and narrative of a space, and by making everyone feel welcome, the art can encourage diversity within communities. In Jane Jacob’s book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she points out that diversely populated public spaces are “safer, more prosperous, more enjoyable for residents, and more attractive to visitors.” So, because public art can encourage and celebrate diversity, it can also increase safety and quality of life in public spaces.

Valerie Imparato with her mural at CultureHouse Harvard

Interact

You might throw a penny in a fountain, look for your reflection in “The Bean”, or debate whether the reptile in Curtistic’s CultureHouse mural is an alligator or a crocodile. Maybe you ask a stranger to take your picture in front of a sculpture, or you chat with your waiter about the exhibit at a nearby café. Public artwork kick-starts interaction. Interaction with your companions, with strangers, and even with the art itself creates the bonds that foster a sense of place and community.

Participate

Not only does public art spark interaction, but it also provides a venue for people to actively participate in placemaking in their own community spaces. Bringing in the ideas, suggestions, and preferences of community members to the design and creation of public art allows community spaces to best serve and please those who inhabit them.

In addition, public art can welcome and encourage participation in social offerings. For example, the murals on the CultureHouse Harvard kiosk draw attention to the CultureHouse space, where they can engage with community members, tourists, and even CultureHouse staff by playing ping-pong, joining in trivia events, or participating in other community fostering activities.

Inside of CultureHouse Harvard

“Culture is not only beneficial to cities; in a deeper sense, it’s what cities are for. A city without poets, painters and photographers is sterile.” -Rebecca Solnit.

CultureHouse is a nonprofit organization that improves livability in urban communities by transforming unused spaces into vibrant social infrastructure. To get in touch, partner with us, and learn more about what we’re all about, visit culturehouse.cc.