What’s art got to do with it? 4 reasons why sustainable cities need artists and cultural institutions on board

Ania Rok

By Ania Rok, on March 30th, 2016

> Read Ania Rok's articles

Bristol’s Park Street turned into a 90-meter water slide, Photo by Luke Jerram

It all started with a water slide, on a sunny Sunday morning two years ago. Over 65.000 people stood in Bristol’s Park Street to watch the lucky 360 go head-first down the 90-meter slide. The installation by the British artist Luke Jerram was supported by a crowd-funding campaign and became an instant media hit, reaching over 600 million people across the globe. More importantly perhaps, by letting Bristolians use the city as their playground, Jerram raised questions on the right to the city, the value of public space, the functions that a city center should fulfill.

I wasn’t even in Bristol on that day but the story was everywhere. I was hooked and it was only the beginning. Long subsisting on a diet of reports and conferences, I was excited to further explore the role that arts and artists can play in shaping the future of our cities. In this post I will share with you 4 reasons why artists and cultural institutions are valuable allies in making your city more sustainable. This is also a call to all URBACT cities looking to establish their Local Support Groups: make sure that art and cultural institutions are represented too!

  • Art makes the future(s) tangible

Eve Mosher in NYC park as she explains the HighWaterLine project - Credit photo HighWaterLine NYC/Hose CedanoEve Mosher in NYC park as she explains the HighWaterLine project, Credit: HighWaterLine NYC/Hose Cedano

Let’s take the HighWaterLine project : Eve Mosher, an American performance artist, set out to visualize the impact of climate change, marking the area at risk of flooding with a 112km-long line and chatting to people along the way.

In her interview with New Yorker, Mosher said:

“I wanted to leave this visually interesting mark, to open up a space for conversation. The other part of the project was to try to prod some kind of conversation on a government level”.

Almost 6 years later the area demarcated by the original line has been flooded by Hurricane Sandy. What started with one woman patiently marking a single chalk line across Brooklyn has become an international campaign on community resilience in the face of climate change.

To encourage others to follow, the HighWaterLine project has developed a free action guide for communities willing to strengthen their social and environmental resilience. Seeing a line drawn across parks and sidewalks people use everyday makes it easier for them to translate the abstract issue of climate change to their local reality. Making the future impacts visible in the public space gives a push for community mobilisation.

  • Art brings us back to the human experience

Have you read the text of the Paris Agreement, final document of the COP21 United Nations Conference on Climate Change? It’s a 32-page document written in a very official language, product of a tumultous process of international negotiations. Lost in the legal battles over this or that word, it’s easy to forget we are talking about the most urgent global challenge of our times.

That’s where ArtCOP21 came in, bringing climate change from corridors of power back to the streets. This extraordinary coalition of artists and cultural institutions has organized over 550 events and demonstrations in 54 countries across the world, mobilising millions of citizens and sending a powerful political message on the importance of addressing climate change.

From installations to concerts, from exhibitions to theatre plays, the arts community has pulled out all the stops to bring more voices to the global climate talks. One initiative that I found particularly moving did literally just that, bringing poets and spoken word artists from some of the most vulnerable regions of the world to perform in Paris.

Isabella Borgeson performing her winning poem Yoland Winds in a metro carriage in Paris

  • Art offers safe space to experiment

A few years ago I visited my friends who had just moved into a new apartment. By the door they had a simple wooden frame from which a tangle of wires was sticking out, a small printed label attached underneath said ‘composition with the wires, 2014’.  It’s embarassing to admit but it took me some time to realize that it was just a joke, a cheeky way to deal with the mess of the renovation and not a piece of art. Or was it?

Now think of the same situation but on an urban scale.

While urban planners are limited by regulations, hierarchies or schedules, artists have the licence to play that lets them – at least temporarily – suspend the rules. Artistic interventions create symbols of what is possible but also uncover questions that haven’t been asked yet.

The focus can be on the city as a whole (as is the case e.g. with the Experiment Stockholm  project or a particular space within this city (e.g. the UFO project in Warsaw). Often, the art project would serve as a laboratory for exploring certain themes, e.g. the Critical Concrete initiative from Porto brings together artists and architects to offer new solutions for social housing and sustainable construction.

These urban laboratories offer extremely valuable insights to planners and politicians, as long as they are willing to approach them with open minds and curiosity.

Unexpected Fountain Occupation (UFO) landed in Warsaw in the summer 2011Unexpected Fountain Occupation (UFO) landed in Warsaw in the summer, Photo by Constructlab

  • Art has a carbon footprint too

The show must goon from Julie's bicycle

The Show Must Go On from Julie’s bicycle, Credit: The Show Must Go On report

Last but not least, let’s not forget that cultural institutions have an impact on environment too. Museums or cinemas, music festivals or art schools – if you are serious about making your city carbon-neutral, you need them on board!

Music festivals are no strangers to greening intiatives (as seen e.g. with the Greener Festival Award existing since 2007) but the industry is taking their sustainability ambitions to a whole new level, at least in the UK. ‘The Show Must Go On’ report, launched in November 2015, includes not only an environmental impact assessment of the UK music festival industry but also a commitment to achieve a 50% reduction in green house gas emissions by 2025.

How do you translate those committments into local action?

Luckily, organisations like Julie’s Bicycle or Creative Carbon Scotland offer a wealth of free resources and learning opportunities to cultural institutions wishing to reduce their environmental impact. From Green Orchestras Guide (my favorite title ever!) to webinars on reducing environmental impact of exhibitions, from practical advice on water management in buildings to case studies on power management for outdoor events – no need to blaze the trail, there is plenty of knowledge already available.

By encouraging arts community and cultural institutions to walk the talk, you can gain not only valuable allies in your sustainability efforts but also influential examples that others will happily follow.


This is of course just a beginning. I’m sure there are many more reasons and hundreds of good examples out there so please feel free to share yours in the comments or via Twitter.


By Ania Rok, Programme Expert for URBACT

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