Tuesday, July 24, 2012

When Poor Planning Gives Public Art Initiatives a Bad Name

Just back from a vacation in Calgary, and while most of my time was spent with family, I did have some public-arty reflections along the way.

Driving by the Calatrava-designed Peace Bridge on Memorial Drive, I got to see for myself just how close it is to three other existing pedestrian bridges over the Bow River. According to Wikipedia, the distances are just "275m west, 400m west, and 900m east" of the Calatrava bridge location. Having walked and biked those previously existing bridges during the time I did live in Calgary, the Peace Bridge location does seem a bit strange--couldn't it have gone in a location that better needed a pedestrian bridge? Or have replaced an existing one?

My concern about the less-than-stellar planning around this bridge initiative—like, why give people a good reason to hate on public art? Why not put it in a better location where it will be less wasteful of resources from an infrastructure perspective?—intensified when it was pointed out to me that this project included only a bridge over the river, not a safe pedestrian crossing over the adjoining thoroughfare of Memorial Drive.

As a result, many Peace Bridge users have been unsafely jaywalking across the busy Memorial Drive, which, being somewhat twisty, has poor visibility, and which, as a major downtown artery, can be quite busy.  

The Calgary Herald reported in March that the City of Calgary is acting to resolve this problem by adding a crosswalk, but I didn't see any such crosswalk during my visit. In a more recent article in Metro Calgary, aldermen also trumpeted the success of the bridge, saying usage has well exceeded forecasts—I can definitely see the aesthetic appeal of the bridge and its power to create a kind of destination, but I also don't think that completely excuses the infrastructure doubling.

In any case, driving by the bridge did prompt me to consider the ways public art can go wrong, even when the creative is stellar and the overall result is largely positive for many people. 

Drew Anderson at FFWD also recently posted a reflection on the bridge as being a consequence of what I'll call "world-class city" anxieties, resulting in a generic, rather than particular, feel to new art and design projects. (These anxieties aren't just for Toronto, ya'll!)

Basically, I remain a big supporter of public art and related initiatives, but it remains frustrating to see poor planning that gives citizens quite good reasons reasons to be skeptical or unwelcoming of public art in general.

If anyone has other examples of the ways poor planning can hamper promising public art, feel free to post in the comments.  

(Image: Nighttime view of Peace Bridge by Skeezix1000 at Wikimedia)

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