The IFTF Blog
Are Artists the Future of Community Health?
In our previous work, we at Health Horizons made the case that place is important for health. This year—as part of our research on the new roles, responsibilities, and authorities that will emerge to enhance well-being over the next decade—we’re asking, "who is going to act on it?"
Over the next week or so, I’ll share some potential answers, starting with one idea I'm particularly enthusiastic about—that artists and communities could have key roles in demanding and designing healthier environments.
In fact, we already see signals of this happening today. For instance, the “Better Block” project. From their website:
“The "Better Block" project is a demonstration tool that temporarily revisions an area to show the potential to create a great walkable, vibrant neighborhood center. The project acts as a living charrette so that communities can actively engage in the "complete streets" buildout process and develop pop-up businesses to show the potential for revitalized economic activity in an area. Better Blocks are now being performed throughout the country, and have helped cities rapidly implement infrastructure and policy changes.”
While the words “healthy” and “environment” are not used in the self-description, I’d argue that’s such projects do make for healthier environments. The walkable streets encourage people to get out and, well, walk (exercise), and in doing so also get some valuable social interaction.
PARK(ing) Day is a similar project that’s gone viral. (Health Horizons Program Co-Director Miriam Lueck Avery shared this as a signal of participatory urban well-being at a previous Health Horizons conference.) Every year, on Sept. 16, groups of people worldwide erect temporary parks in metered parking spaces to illustrate what the environment might look with more green space.
(San Francisco even has “Parkmobiles”: garden-filled dumpsters attached to the back of trucks.)
Candy Chang, co-founder of a civic design studio called Civic Center, has created a number of fascinating projects, among them “Hypothetical Development,” in which artists create (often fanciful/symbolic) renderings of how a neglected building could be remade, and then post them on-site for community feedback; and “I Wish This Was,” in which she posted blank “I wish this was…” stickers on vacant/dilapidated spaces for people to suggest future uses.
What’s particularly notable in Chang’s approach is that she has explicitly characterized her art projects as a well-being strategy. From an interview in the Atlantic:
“I like to make cities more comfortable for people. I like to explore ways we can use public space to improve our neighborhoods and our personal well-being…. I think we're still discovering how much the design of our public spaces can affect our quality of life. Thoughtful public spaces make you feel comfortable, which leads to a chain of other benefits in life, love, and civic engagement. It's all about the details, like stoops, tree canopies, and painted storefront shutters. These things make the streets more inviting, more comfortable, and ultimately safer.”
All of this, to me, suggests that artists will have a substantial (and more formal) role in health in the next decade, as they’ll be critical in the creative design of healthy spaces, among other potential health and well-being roles. (Jeremy Liu, who was interviewed for our Place Matters forecast, recently wrote about creative placemaking and listed several signals that fostering arts is being recognized as a way to, in and of itself, enhance the well-being of communities.)
These signals also suggest that communities could have a much larger role in the how their environments are designed. Previously, to engage in such a process, citizens would need to find out when and where various planning meetings were happening and then go participate in them. But these artists have found low-tech ways to create immersive previews of redesigned spaces and to solicit community input. With a decade of technology advance and growing recognition of the impact place has on well-being, the way we design spaces in 2023 could look radically different from today.