Can art power sustainable urban development?

At the final Urban Thinkers Campus, proponents highlighted success stories to suggest that art deserves a unique spot in the New Urban Agenda.

Since 2004, the Belgrade Boat Carnival has helped to revitalize the Serbian capital's waterfront and clean up its waterways. (Foto011/Shutterstock)

ALGHERO, Italy — Walking through the narrow streets of Alghero, it is easy to be astonished by the mix of Catalan and Italian spoken by locals and visitors who for three days last month helped make this town in southern Italy into a centre of the European debate on cities and art.

This mix of languages and cultures is a key part of the local identity of this remote corner of Sardinia island, a unique Catalan enclave since the 14th century. Indeed, that social and linguistic tapestry can itself be thought of as a work of art: evidence of how urban spaces can foster creativity and exchange of cultures, often in unexpected and unplanned ways.

The framework for the discussions is the current process toward Habitat III, the U. N.-wide summit that will set global urbanization strategy for the coming 20 years. In the lead-up to that event, which will take place in Quito in October, a series of more than two-dozen thematic stakeholder events known as Urban Thinkers Campuses have been organized by the World Urban Campaign, aimed at gathering input for the drafting of the New Urban Agenda, the strategy that will come out of Habitat III.

[See here for all of Citiscope’s coverage of the Urban Thinkers Campuses]

The Alghero event, held 18-20 February, was the last of these campuses and one of its most conceptual. Gathered under the motto “Open for art”, participants discussed how art and creativity can not only make better urban spaces but also create more integrated and inclusive local communities. The event was organized by the Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning of the University of Sassari, based in Alghero.

It is not by chance that this topic was highlighted in Italy, where art has played a key role in the centuries-long evolution of public spaces. More recently, Alghero is where proponents finally overcame a longstanding debate over whether art should be seen as mere heritage meant to protect.

Thanks to the presence of universities and informal groups of residents and artists, Alghero has concretely demonstrated how art can percolate up from the bottom into many aspects of urban life — and be a key factor in the sustainable development of urban communities.

[See: Cultural rights pushed as ‘key pillar’ of sustainable development]

At the Urban Thinkers Campus, other cities likewise highlighted their own successes in this regard. In Belgrade, for instance, the Public Art and Public Spaces Department of the local Faculty of Architecture over the past decade promoted a huge number of initiatives to promote public art as an opportunity for local development in urban and rural areas of Serbia.

“We started from the theory that the city is itself a masterpiece, to be seen as a complex system of material and non-material components,” said Zoran Djukanovic, architect and founder of the Public Art and Public Spaces programme.

Since 2004, Djukanovic has involved Belgrade residents in organizing the Belgrade Boat Carnival. The event’s art performances have not only become a key part of the city’s identity, but the event has also contributed to the better management of the city’s water system and to the overall regeneration of its riverfront — a public space that has been revitalized thanks to the active participation of residents.

Empowering residents to use public spaces in creative ways is the commonality that connects the experiences of Belgrade to Sassari, a Sardinian city where the Faculty of Architecture of Alghero tested an engagement model called Tutta Mia La Cità (“My own city”, or TaMaLaCà).

That initiative fostered the participation of children and families from marginalized areas of the city to retake parts of the urban area through art and games. The project, carried out in collaboration with a local elementary school, again showed how art can play a key role in regaining public spaces and making them more conducive to the uses of local communities.

Glue that binds

Promoting art as a social and cultural service to local communities is a central aim for the University of Alghero, which aims to connect local traditions of urban art with the global debate on the future of cities. In this, supporters have an ambitious objective: to insert consideration of art into the Habitat III policy discussion.

References to the topic are already present in some of the early drafts of the expert papers being put together by thematic “policy units”. Draft outline papers from each of these units were published at the end of December, and some that touch on this issue included those on “The Right to the Cities and Cities for All” and “Urban Spatial Strategies”.

Still, clear reference to the social role of art “is decisive to claim the right to freedom of expression, so that artists can appeal to that right in order to promote it at the local level and in relation to local governments,” said Giovanni Campus, project leader for the recent Urban Thinkers Campus.

A draft outcome document from the campus urges the recognition that art can be fundamental to enabling people to claim ownership of urban spaces while also strengthening the liveability of those spaces and promoting diversified, creative economies.

[See: Toward a global action plan for public space]

Art can also function as a universal language to overcome urban divisions and conflict. This was a point made repeatedly during the Alghero discussions and in their outcome document, as well as in the exhibitions that took place throughout the city in parallel to the campus.

Alghero sits in an area that has historically been open and welcoming to exiles coming from around the Mediterranean. Today’s influx of refugees and migrants into Europe thus makes the city an innovative laboratory today for practices mixing collaborative urban storytelling and regeneration of spaces used for the integration of people into the urban fabric — for instance, a former camp for Roma people or the local centre for refugee integration.

[See: Redefining urban citizenship when migrants and refugees are the norm]

During the campus, a collective of artists and architects called Stalker walked through these areas while exploring the relationship between art and public space. The experience included photos and drawings sent by the residents through a social media app.

The results of this collaborative performance are showcased until 13 March in the Torre Sulis, located in the Alghero main square — renamed for the occasion as Torre Esulis, a place where poetry and art produced by artists and residents become part of the urban laboratory.

Art can thus function as glue binding together different actors in a city “where people can stay well together”, said Alghero Mayor Mario Bruno at the opening of the campus. This is a lesson that is valid well beyond Alghero, noted Pietro Garau of the Italian Institute of Urban Planner.

“Delivering a convincing message on the role of the art for the urban quality of life can be an important contribution from Italy,” Garau said, “the country that invented the concept of the square as public space, to the global debate towards a New Urban Agenda.”

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Simone d'Antonio

Simone is a Rome-based journalist who covers innovation, sustainability and urban issues.