Art in public areas: participation and sustainability

© Sven Brandelius

Sustainable urban development includes not only ecological aspects, but also social aspects. Artist Carly Schmitt uses participative interventions in public areas to help different population groups in urban settings and in the countryside to formulate their needs and wishes.

Sustainable urban development? Most people think of this in terms of ecological projects, such as new cycle paths and green spaces, or better public transport services to ensure that fewer cars are on the roads, which results in air pollution being reduced. does however also have social aspects. Because everyone should experience urban areas that are worth living in, no matter how much they earn, whatever their cultural background, or whether they are physically challenged.

Art as a shared activity

But how can citizens express their wishes and needs? Carly Schmitt has lots of ideas in this regard. The artist and alumna of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation's German Chancellor Fellowship has already realised some of them in recent years. ‘To include as many population groups as possible, you really need to get out on the streets, be among local people’, she says.

Messages for improved togetherness

In 2018, Carly Schmitt deployed one of her art interventions to assist the southern German city Ulm to create a new mission statement as an international city. She asked passers-by at various locations in Ulm to write down what they would like to change in their city. These messages were then displayed in the form of small ads on billboards. Citizens were therefore able to react to one another, and enter into dialogue. It also gave rise to very tangible actions. As Carly Schmitt was posting these messages in front of a mosque, for example, many of the mosque visitors expressed the view that they would like to see an increase in cultural exchange in Ulm. The municipality responded directly and opened their premises for guided tours and events.

From Minnesota to Weimar

Carly Schmitt originates from Minnesota; she came to Germany as a student and studied Art in Public Areas in Weimar. The 40-year-old now lives in Meschede in the Sauerland with her German husband, who she met during her studies, and their two children. This is where she plans her participative art projects in Europe and the USA. ‘Simply using artworks to embellish public spaces never interested me’, she recounts. What she finds more exciting is collaborating with citizens to develop visions of the future for urban areas or rural regions.

A cinema with heritage

Her work in the Greek town Kardamyli in 2010 involved coming up with a new use concept for an abandoned cinema. ‘Most people simply thought the building was an eyesore that they ignored.’ Carly Schmitt created a small shop in the old building. She used it to present artefacts from the cinema’s storeroom. ‘Many visitors recognised items, and this reminded them that the cinema was and is a part of their life’, Carly Schmitt relates enthusiastically. ‘And then ideas also emerged about what could be done with this place.’ The building now houses a grocery outlet.

Culture at your fingertips

Carly Schmitt feels that it’s particularly important to include people and groups whose needs are often neglected. So in Nuremberg she involved visually impaired pupils in designing a landscape painting on which structures can be felt. They jointly presented the painting to a local museum. ‘Until then, the staff there hadn’t even considered integrating something like this into their exhibitions. They did certainly have guided tours for blind people, but these only included audio descriptions of the art objects.’

A special type of street map

Currently, Carly Schmitt is primarily concerned with rural regions. Because there too she feels, where people live together less anonymously than in big cities, it isn’t always self-evident that the interests of all groups are taken into account in urban development. Newcomers, often people with a migration background, are often overlooked when it comes to planning for the future. In Meschede, Carly Schmitt worked with children from families with a migrant background. Among other things they created a street map that marks and highlights important places for them – such as the swimming pool, the bike park or the nearest bus stop. ‘It shows the town from their point of view.’ The young people now also want to have their dreams of a town worth living in printed on T-shirts. Thanks to Carly Schmitt, the town planners in Meschede will therefore have plenty of material for socially sustainable development of their locality.

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