Smart (Public) Art
As urban spaces develop and places of nature are increasingly subject to the human touch, are we meeting our human needs for inspiration and beauty? As John Muir said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.”
Civic art projects are already thinking about how to integrate design, sustainability, social engagement, and technology into these public works, creating more livable spaces that attract citizens and yes, tourists.
The Bay Lights
The Bay Lights art project illuminating San Francisco’s Bay Bridge for the next two years features 25,000 long lasting LED bulbs from Philips, using relatively little energy (<$11,000 over 2 years, with carbon offsets from solar panels in Davis, CA), a continuously changing pattern generated by algorithms, and will bring in an estimated $97 million in additional revenue to the city from 50 million viewers. LED’s provide a design flexibility and durability that has seemed to capture designers’ and artists’ imagination, such as thought-provoking public projections all over the world.
San Jose’s Climate Clock is a project that will illustrate the earth’s carbon cycle to the public and measure changes in greenhouse gas levels for 100 years, thus encouraging a long-term mindset while being powered by the sun.
Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park Interpretive Center
A more tactile approach is this sculpture and slow-release time capsule at an interpretive nature center in Santa Clarita, CA made of rammed earth containing artifacts contributed by members of the community. It is designed to erode over 200 years and reveal both the artifacts as well as a bronze sculpture inside.
San Francisco Public Utilities Commission
Exterior and interior urban landscaping can also performs onsite water treatment, such as the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s headquarters which treats all of the building’s wastewater to fulfill 100% of the building’s flushing needs (case study here).
Challenging and Educating Designers
Public spaces in urban areas often have the opportunity to step outside of business-as-usual and dream big. The impressive Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI) aims to design and construct a series of public art projects that also generate clean energy. Ignite your imagination with the beautiful entries in their 2012 design competition to develop a pragmatic art installation for the capped landfill at Freshkills Park , Staten Island, NYC. The site’s wind, solar, and water velocity data were provided along with aesthetic criteria, resulting in a combined design, engineering, and public space application.
The 2012 winner used a mesh screen interwoven with piezoelectric wires to harness physical energy from wind and passing pedestrians as well as visually reflecting the visual landscape back on itself. In the evening, LEDs light the undulating display. Like a mix of window, mirror, and wind turbine, the project can generate up to 5,500 MWh annually, powering thousands of nearby homes. Though not energy positive on its own, a hyper-efficient kinetic canvas at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission lights thousands of fluttering panels and requires less energy than a 75-watt bulb for the 13-story display.
Generating energy isn’t all smokestacks and spinning blades. LAGI’s free Field Guide to Renewable Energy Technologies (pdf) gives one-page snapshots of more than 60 approaches that designers, artists, planners, engineers, and homeowners can incorporate into their projects. They also offer an excellent online education module exploring basics of aesthetic renewable energy infrastructure. And an offshoot Hot Spots project is reclaiming abandoned petrol stations around Munich, Pittsburgh, and Dubai for public art to depict the concept of what happens after oil.
Imagination >= Possibilities
Public art can also contribute in very practical ways to creating habitat, reducing environmental impact, and even earning LEED green building certification points. Here are some excellent examples from Green Public Art:
- Living walls of plants emulating real paintings
- Reducing heat island effects with creative paint schemes such as in NYC’s Times Square
- Restore native habitats integrating nest boxes into a wall for birds and bats
- Dog waste digester in city parks allows people to deposit waste and crank the wheel to turn the digester, which illuminates a streetlight.
- A sculpture of a car that uses catalytic cement to absorb air pollutants
It’s encouraging to see efforts that leverage the concrete and wires of our smart cities to create transformative spaces that are livable and beautiful. In the meantime, even something as prosaic as a speed bump that generates energy might inspire us to use public space in advancing sustainability.