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    Reviving cities’ urban fabric through art

    By Daljeet Kaur, on 1 September 2016

    Cities are socio-technical systems, precariously integral, capable of growing as well as becoming smaller and fragmented but still functioning. Even though they have a resilient inherent quality, many cities around the world are witnessing slow death. The reasons could be many – environmental and social degradation, diminishing opportunities for the young population, shifting economic centers, poor governance, loss of character, etc. The dying city is reflected in everything thereafter, in its form, function, and most important the functionaries – the city dwellers. The first sign of decay is visible in the urban form, which instead of undergoing a constant transformation, stops in time and becomes redundant.

    Photo 1: Abandoned Township, Lost fervour

    Photo 1: Abandoned Township, Lost fervour

    Smartening the Cities

    The smart city concept brought out by the current government in India, urges planners to design innovative future cities to address the urban transition India is experiencing. In 1900, around 15% of world’s population lived in cities where as in 2015 more than 55% lived in cities. By 2050 it is estimated that 70% of world’s population will be living in cities. According to United Nations, Cities are using only 2% of the entire planet’s land mass and 75% of the world’s natural resources, accounting for approximately 80% of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions. The challenge ahead for city planners is to accommodate the 70% population which will be living in cities by 2050 in the 2% of land available to them.

    Improved access to global markets, rapid advances in technology, as well as rising expectations of citizens is fueling the growth engines of urbanization. Cities around the world are embracing a smart agenda. There are several definitions of what it means to be a “smart city,” thus giving an opportunity to governments to define their own programs, policies and procedures, responding to their own unique priorities and needs. Famously, the word SMART as an acronym stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based goals. Most of smart city frameworks in the developing world comprise projects and programs that feature smart grids, smart buildings, clean technology and smart governance. However, apart from meeting basic needs, smart cities need to also improve livability, give its citizen a sense of pride, ownership, identity and belonging.

    Reviving the urban fabric

    Every city has a peculiar character, represented by elements such as smell, form, colour, texture, sound and culture, commonly described as the urban fabric. A smooth texture, a ragged landscape, a dense weave, a focal point, an intriguing maze, etc., all represent the city’s unique character. Thus, just like a fabric, a city also has a print, a pattern and a colour and when it evolves with time, more often than not, it changes these inherent characteristics. In other words, by accommodating migrant population, welcoming new cultures and traditions, the city voluntarily or involuntarily absorbs elements – and loses its basic essence for better or worse.

    Delhi is a historic city, between 3000 B.C. and the 17th century A.D seven different cities came into existence in its location. The remnants of each of these seven cities can be seen today in structures such as Gates, Tombs, Water Bodies, Economic Activities and Streetscape, though most features have lost their fervor with time. An organic city by nature, Delhi has seen drastic changes in its urban form. Several rulers conquered Delhi and adorned it with their symbols, Turk introducing Minar, Mughal Domes, Persian coloured tiles, Maratha’s shikhars and British Bungalows with Gardens.

     

    Photo 2: Delhi’s old structures peeking out of the evolved streetscape today

    Photo 2: Delhi’s old structures peeking out of the evolved streetscape today

     

    However, in modern times, the urban design is not dependent on rulers and thus before a city involuntarily transform we need to plan the inevitably transformation. The launch of four flagship Missions (Smart City, AMRUT, HRIDAY and Swachch Bharat Mission) by Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India represents a realization of a paradigm shift which is taking place in addressing the challenges this evolving unplanned urban transition. These interlinked Missions built on broad overarching objective of creating clean, sanitized, healthy, livable, economically vibrant and responsive cities propagate ‘Planning’ as a fundamental tool for providing realistic direction and cohesive development.

    The question however still remains – will smart cities revive the decaying urban fabric? The cities of today need a renaissance movement to make them more inviting, sustainable and vibrant. Art can be instrumental in renewing the look of the city and thus the new trend of using graffiti in portraying emotions, conveying messages and giving dimension to the otherwise plain façade is an idea which is fast catching up in cities around the world. An individual’s expression, graffiti – triggers different reactions from onlookers. Where, many relate to them, some also find these obscure and obstructing. Besides, igniting different feelings amongst people they are being welcomed more and more as part of the urban form. In addition to urban features like, street furniture, signage, kiosks and structures; art and colour are becoming popular urban elements reversing the slow death a city is prone to undergo.

    Art on the walls of houses, schools and community spaces is not new to India. Women have been painting their homes from outside by drawing specific geometric patterns. Folk art and strings of mystical stories are common illustrations found in villages with lined mud houses, helping to differentiate the otherwise similar looking brown facades.

    Photo 3: Traditional paintings on the walls of Rural India.

    Photo 3: Traditional paintings on the walls of Rural India.

    Continuing with this tradition, Delhi has recently endorsed graffiti on its vertical frame changing the streetscape altogether. One of the first public intervention adopted by the residents of Lodhi Colony in Delhi has helped convert their residential area into an art district. Several Art Volunteers from across the globe have been tasked to reform the plain walls of the residential blocks into masterpieces. The art portrays – mythology, technology, nature, Indian ethnic patterns, future but above all it portrays pride. Pride which every citizen needs to feel for their larger abode – the city in which they live to respect and to protect the space.

    Photo 4: Recent promotion of Street Art by international artists in Lodi Colony, Delhi

    Photo 4: Recent promotion of Street Art by international artists in Lodi Colony, Delhi

     


    Daljeet Kaur is Associate Director – Knowledge Management with IPE Center for Knowledge and Development (http://ipeckd.com/ipeckd). IPE CKD is the knowledge management arm of IPE Global Limited (www.ipeglobal.com), which was established in 2013 to extend the frontiers of knowledge and promote experimentation for innovative solutions to global development challenges. Alongside her work, Daljeet pursues her passion of painting, sketching and drawing under the banner madhURBANi.

    Meeting the Change Maker Painters: Street Messages in Accra, Ghana

    By Claire Tunnacliffe, on 20 April 2016

    The first experience of a city is a disorientating introduction of smells, sound, temperature and touch. It is primarily sensorial. Before you can get your bearings, your body reacts, attunes, listens, smells, and looks.

    I’ve been fascinated about the use of the wall as a tool for communication and transformation, and while I’ve known from previous visits to Accra that there were messages inscribed on the walls, I had never paid close enough attention to them, the walls passing by in a whir of taxi windows, going from place A to B. This time it would be about following the surfaces, not about the destination but the in between.

    Accra’s visual landscape is dominated by signage; Ghanaians express and shape their culture through this, as common as the informal flows that dominate the city. Signs stating ‘Do Not Urinate Here’, ‘Post No Bills’ sit alongside adverts for Indomie, Glo and Juvita. School walls are decorated with children playing and learning. Billboards advertise religious services, skin care and weight loss. In and amongst this, businesses paint the front of their shop with illustrations of their services and products.

    Figure 1: Signage, Hospital Road

    Figure 1: Signage, Hospital Road

     

    Hash-Tags

    On Accra’s main roads in and around the city, messages become slightly more political, more patriotic. On November 7th 2016, Ghana will have another election, and the surfaces along the streets are covered in posters for party leaders and tags. Ghana is a multi-party system but either the National Democratic Congress or the New Patriotic Party largely dominates it, with any other party finding it difficult to achieve electoral success. However, along these main roads is the repetitive scrawl: #GHANAGOESGREEN #TOTALSUPPORT #NEWREGISTERSTOVOTE or SAVE GHANA. A retort to the current election process and another party, the Convention People’s Party, a socialist political party based on the ideas of the first President of Ghana Kwame Nkrumah. After a bit of digging online, I learn that #ghanagoesgreen isn’t based on green party politics, but rather for Ivor Greenstreet, a candidate standing for Presidential Election in 2016.

    Figure 2: #GHANAGOESGREEN, Ring Road Central

    Figure 2: #GHANAGOESGREEN, Ring Road Central

     

    These hash-tags straddle two existences between public space and cyber space, a tactic used by political parties, musicians and other businesses. While many people do have phones, what part of the demographic accesses the Internet? Do these tags predominantly exist online or offline?

     

    Murals

    I met Larry, who co-founded Nima: Muhinmanchi Art (NMA), a grassroots organisation that provides art workshops to youth, beautifying communities through public art and promoting urban renewal through culture. Larry tells me how he sees mural paintings as an opportunity to transform everyday spaces, empowering local communities and how it’s a powerful tool to changing the perception of Nima. Nima, is a dense, vibrant and ethnically diverse residential area in Accra, made popular by a large market. It is a stigmatized area, external perceptions have created prejudice and cultural barriers to the rest of the city, and as a result, it has become a city within a city – with its own authorities, rules and policing, undergoing its own development, driven and enforced by its inhabitants.

     

    Larry is passionate about the power of art as transformative, calling the artists in NMA the Change Maker Painters. I ask him about the mural making process and he explains that it begins with a visibility study, to identify a surface that has the most footfall followed by a conversation with the community; including chiefs, the wall owner and households in the immediate vicinity. He presents what he has noticed about the area or what other people have raised with him – the murals act as a vehicle to talk about issues; child labour, waste, and politics. The murals, are subjects of conversation before, during and after their production, with people stopping to talk and ask questions, and share their own experiences. He tells me about a mural that the NMA did after Accra was devastated by a flood and explosion in 2015 that saw the loss of 150 lives. They decided to paint a mural along Kanda Highway to stress the importance of waste management, one of the main causes found for the flood that had blocked drainage systems. As a result, people clean their drains outside their homes and in their community more frequently than when they are just blocked, creating more preventative methods of avoiding another flood.

     

    I meet with Rufai Zakari, an artist, in his studio in Nima, and I ask him why he has made the transition to murals, “Art contributes to positive change. But also introduces something African into the street art scene. My community, which I promised to help with my profession, needs this. I am a child of that community and I use art to change the perception of it, but also to fight for my country and continent”. In March 2015, he set up with other street artists GrafArt GH, a group of young artists from Ghana with the aim of using art to address issues facing the African continent & also to promote Ghanaian art & culture to the rest of the world. Rufai explains that to him, art is a multidimensional tool, to change peoples view of the area, to beautify, but also as a platform for change and awareness raising.

     

    Art movements in these contexts are therefore less about the individual, about the money, than they are about the collective, the community, so that everyone grows and learns together. These Change Maker Painters, see themselves occupying two roles, one within their own communities, painting the inner bellies of the walls and communal courtyards to address very localised problems, but also more widely in the streets of Accra, drawing attention to who they are, to changing the perception of their community, to showing Ghanaians and the world their art.

     

    Figure 3: Flood & Fire, Kanda Highway

    Figure 3: Flood & Fire, Kanda Highway

    Accra is a creative and dynamic city, its visual landscape a thick tapestry of politics, social, environmental and economic messages. From the religious billboards that dominate much of the main roads, to the upcoming elections, the hash-tags that flicker past moving vehicles, to the Ghanaian flag which is bold and colourful, to the murals in communities and the art festivals in the streets of Accra more widely. There are therefore many ways in which street messages are communicated to the city and its inhabitants, orchestrated by individuals, communities, businesses, artists and politicians. While their intent and agency may vary, the wall is a space for appropriation, discussion and transformation, and as one artist pointed out to me as, “if there are no walls, we will build the wall, to share our message”.

    Figure 4: Bird, Jamestown

    Figure 4: Bird, Jamestown

    Many thanks to NMA for opening up their studios and selves to my questions – and personally to Larry, Musah, Rufai and Kamal. I extend also a big thank you to Samoa, for taking me on a tour of Jamestown, exploring the route of Chale Wote. Thank you to Victoria Okoye from African Urbanism, for the contacts, resources & tilapia.


    Claire is a DPU MSc Environment & Sustainable Development Alumni. Since graduating in 2012, she continues to research the role of urban street art in re-naturing urban imaginations and experiences. She is a PhD student at the Bartlett School of Architecture exploring street messages in West African urbanism. However, her interests are interdisciplinary; community engagement, urban street art, public interest design, sustainable development, town planning, creative cities, art psychotherapy, mental health, the psychodynamics of public spaces, and their impact on place making in the city. All images taken by Claire Tunnacliffe.