Landscape Architecture

Animating public spaces can inspire, rather than drive, sustainable behaviour

Public produce spaces — gardens grown on public lots and available for anyone to harvest — are just one example of a growing movement to animate public spaces in a way that inspires rather than drives sustainable behaviour.

The idea is that these spaces spark passersby to engage with the environment around them a little differently as their curiosity and energy is awakened, says Bonnie Klohn, a community consultant with Urban Systems Ltd.

Bonnie is a contributor to a book that’s just been released, Animation of Public Space Through the Arts, which explores how innovative artistic animation of public spaces contributes to building more sustainable cities. Her work features a public produce space in Kamloops.

Bonnie also learned of the plethora of creative and interesting ideas emerging around the world on this front when she attended a symposium in Coimbra, Portugal in 2011. The symposium brought together architects, planners, artists, researchers, social advocates and performers to talk about and participate in animating public space. It included hands-on workshops that invited participants to go out and implement an “animating” intervention.

Street theatre, the creation of miniature 3D “scenes” tucked into underutilized urban spaces and the creation of camera obscura drawings of urban spaces are among the ideas explored.

“I see artistic endeavours, the animation of public space, as a carrot instead of a stick for acting in a more sustainable manner,” says Bonnie, who also studied artistic inquiry as a way to strengthen community engagement and urban planning in university.

“If we have really interesting things going on in our active transportation corridors, people might want to ride their bikes or walk more than drive so they can see those things.”

The issue of climate change has been on the societal radar for decades now, with much needed action already undertaken.

But where a transition appears to be underway is around focusing more on building on strengths in communities in order to take things to the necessary next level.

This can be seen in the growing energy around the asset-based community development approach pioneered by author and thought leader John McKnight as well as the Transition Towns movement. “People are looking for a new, more meaningful way (to engage in these issues), to channel their energy into something more positive,” Bonnie says.

“If we can engage people in making their walking route a better space or taking ownership over how a public square looks or engaging in cultural development, all those are things that have really positive outcomes.

“People might feel more connected as a result, they might talk to their neighbours more, they might try to walk or bike to work instead of drive, all of which makes for a more resilient community.”

As for her work with Urban Systems, Bonnie says she considers every day how elements of artistic inquiry around community engagement and urban planning might be woven into what she and her colleagues are doing.

She also imagines active transportation infrastructure decision makers taking into consideration how they might weave in artistic and human elements, so that people are even more drawn to make use of them.

With Urban Systems for just over a year, Bonnie adds she is still learning about the many ways that her colleagues already contribute to making public space more engaging for the community: revitalizing and developing community squares, working with neighbourhood associations on community gathering spaces and engaging the public in planning decisions that affect the community.

This story is part four of a series focused on placemaking and other citizen led initiatives. Read other entries in this series here:
1) Citizens stepping up to reshape public spaces
2) Team sparks renewal of Kelowna’s unlikely places
3) Designing and making choices as a community – that’s placemaking
5) New convening role opening for municipalities
6) Placemaking in practice: local history enriches an Edmonton Park
7) City of Victoria lays groundwork for deeper citizen engagement
8) Growing shift among communities focuses on stronger resident engagement and reducing the “role” of local government

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