Over the last decade, U.S. cities have carved out dozens of public plazas from existing streets using little more than paint. A new grant program and guide announced today by Bloomberg Philanthropies will fund the creation of 10 street murals in 10 U.S. cities, as well as track the safety, economic, and civic impact of these projects.
The Asphalt Art Initiative, which will be presented at the CityLab summit in Washington D.C. today and was shared with Curbed in advance, will award 10 small or mid-sized cities with grants of up to $25,000 to create colorful murals on streets, intersections, and crosswalks, or vertical surfaces of transportation infrastructure like utility boxes, traffic barriers, and highway underpasses. Cities that apply must have populations ranging from 30,000 to 500,000 and must implement the project by the end of 2020.
“It’s not just about art—it’s about creating safe spaces for people for pennies on the dollar,” says Janette Sadik-Khan, transportation principal for Bloomberg Associates. “This is fast, easy, inexpensive, and transformative.”
As former transportation commissioner for New York City, Sadik-Khan championed the conversion of Times Square into a network of car-free pedestrian plazas. But the project, which included several asphalt murals, also ended up achieving other goals, she says, like ensuring nearby residents lived within a 10-minute walk of a public space, and helping pedestrian injuries in the area plummet by 30 percent.
“We’re not looking for just pretty pictures, we’re looking for projects that encourage safety benefits and community engagement,” Sadik-Khan tells Curbed, noting that the selected cities will be gathering data to track the overall impact of their projects.
Kate D. Levin, cultural assets management principal at Bloomberg Associates, says these types of low-stakes, low-risk projects give cities a chance to flex their “civic muscle” by conducting planning, outreach, and strategy that can end up uniting a neighborhood. “You end up making a case for the way in which the public realm can be materially improved and start to develop shared language about what people value.”
In addition to the grants, Bloomberg Philanthropies, in collaboration with Street Plans Collaborative and public art consultant Renee Piechocki, has created a free publication that provides a how-to guide and dozens of case studies for city leaders wanting to implement these types of projects on their own.
While the street plazas are intended to be temporary or “tactical”—how long they last depends on the paint material used and how often it’s reapplied—the projects often end up leading to permanent, systemic changes, says Tony Garcia, principal at Street Plans Collaborative.
“Most of the time these projects are used as a relatively inexpensive and quick way to either make streets safer or to reallocate space away from cars and for people,” he says. But even with paint that’s meant to fade away, the impact is lasting. Garcia points to a project in Asheville, North Carolina, which saw retail sales increased by 25 to 30 percent and a 20 to 30 percent drop in vehicular speeds along the corridor.
Those numbers are particularly intriguing just weeks after a colorful painted crosswalk was cited by the federal government as a safety risk. In September, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) requested the removal of a crosswalk in the city of Ames, Iowa, which was painted in colors that signify gender and sexuality inclusivity.
Crosswalk art has the “potential to compromise pedestrian and motorist safety,” read the FHWA letter, which also said colorful artwork may encourage cyclists and pedestrians to “loiter in the street.” (The Ames City Council voted to ignore the request, noting that the FHWA did not have jurisdiction over the road.)
Sadik-Khan dismisses the FHWA’s concerns. “It’s really important to remember that there are 40,000 people killed by cars in this country every year,” she says. “By going after the LGBTQ community in Ames, Iowa, instead of saving lives, they’ve veered out of their lane and into the wrong side of history.”
Asphalt art like plazas and crosswalks can help residents realize they don’t have to accept their transportation system’s status quo, says Levin, who notes that the current design of U.S. streets lends a sense of permanence to cities that isn’t particularly aspirational.
“People lose a sense that they have a choice. That can lead people to accept a public realm that doesn’t optimize what they want or need,” she says. “These projects are helpful in reminding people to not to take their environment for granted.”