Public Art As An Element of Urban Design

Since the late 1960s, public art has made a remarkable come back on the urban scene of many North American cities. The proliferation of art in public and private places was all but a spontaneous manifestation. Art was seen as a “remedy” to cure city centres destroyed or damaged by urban renewal.

Public and private organizations used culture and art as a development and marketing tool, as much as an investment. The recourse to public art in cities must be understood in this context.

“An important component of the new downtown urban design is the provision and orchestration of what is commonly referred to as public art. Frequently linked to the requirement for open space, public art has become an important part not only of individual building design but also of overall urban design.”1 Sculpture has been the most conspicuous form of public art and has formed a notorious trilogy with two other modernist icons: plaza and skyscraper.

Some avant-garde artists, with their ecological art, environmental art or land art (e.g., gardens) have promoted alternative forms of public art. The rigidity of some public policies, the costs attached to the creation, construction and maintenance of those forms of environmental art, as well as the lack of interests from patrons in those art forms contributed to an homogenization of demand and of creation.

At a time when several Canadian municipalities are considering revisions to their existing policy on public art, some thought should be given to art forms that reflect the concerns of the time (e.g., sustainability, ecology), while holding great potential for urban design. Funding mechanisms should be more flexible than the widely known percentage- for-art programmes, which associate a work of art to a specific construction, usually a building. The creation of a fund for public art could allow for the creation works of art created within the urban context as well as for their maintenance.