©EDSA | Insights | Woman Walking Past Graphic Wall Art


©EDSA | Insights | Wall Paintings

Throughout history, art has played an important role in the shaping and telling of people’s collective experiences. Consider prehistoric expressions such as stone engravings and pictographs, rock sculptures and artifacts – that depicted daily life. Though these artforms were created thousands or even millions of years ago, their messages and sentiments were public, clear and enduring. Indeed, it is these earliest expressions of art that have evolved alongside civilization.

Over the last century, the practice of landscape architecture and the practice of art have become more closely intertwined. The advent of creative placemaking, the maker movement, readily available digital production tools and other cultural drivers are blurring the boundaries between how art is defined, what it is made of and where it dwells. As such, art, as defined above, is being destabilized by emerging relationships between the designed environment and creative endeavors.

©EDSA | Insights | Sculptures

This paradigm shift is not entirely a surprise. Public art is often a forum for articulating individual and societal attitudes. We have seen this time and time again in recent years as more than 110 countries have taken part in protests that are visually dynamic. Hand-drawn signs, iconography and symbology representing social issues and thematic colors that unite people in a shared belief have been prominently displayed in public parks, outside government buildings and by extension on social media. And, it is not simply what is ‘made’ when it comes to art in the public realm, but also what is ‘un-made’. Hundreds of statues have been removed or replaced across the nation since the start of 2020.

If we have learned anything during this new decade, it’s that art speaks and what it says is extremely impactful. Art instills meaning – a greater sense of identity and understandings of where we live, work and visit. It humanizes the built environment, provides an intersection between past, present and future, and can help communities thrive. Consider the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. It commemorates a time in history, but was also the stage of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. The reason it draws in nearly six million visitors each year is not due to the structure itself, but because of its emotional ties to people and the role it has played in the progression of society. This is an artistic expression that makes us stop and think.

©EDSA | Insights | Sculptures

Historically, landmarks like the Lincoln Memorial, were made from imported marble and limestone. And, while the gleaming ivory aesthetic definitely communicates grandeur and triggers emotional reactions, meaning can also be cultivated in spaces of nature using native objects. The craft of Earth Art, for instance, utilizes existing natural elements such as stones, water and soil from the ‘in situ’ landscape to create site-specific art forms. Looking down at the surface of our globe or moving in any direction across it, we find areas where there is this harmony and unity among the natural elements that can form picturesque images that transcend time.

Additionally, it is important to note that the most effective forms of art are those rooted in place. For example, large cities that have endured high crime related to graffiti, such as Philadelphia, have transformed the narrative around these expressions. What once was regarded as vandalism has now adopted a positive connotation in ‘street art’, and challenges those who pick up cans of spray paint to create something with meaning. Graffiti tours, art walks and an abundance of hand-painted murals serve as tourist attractions, while the artistic culture of the city continues to speak to residents. In an instance where a community is taken for what it is – there is opportunity for creative expression to flourish and enrich the already-existing culture.

©EDSA | Insights | Street Art

As landscape architects, we embrace all forms of art expression and encourage developers to also welcome these shifting societal nuances – as they are changing the way people interact with the environmental landscape. Now is the time to shape the future of our communities and make bold moves. We have the power and resources to cultivate a purposeful public realm canvas that invites people to create with passion, evoke emotion, highlight culture and enhance a connection to nature that speaks to all generations.