Public Art and Urban Economic Growth

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Art is one of those things that many people consider vital to a good quality of life. It allows us to reflect upon our hopes, ambitions, passions, and to learn from our negative qualities and mistakes for the improvement of the individual and society. Aesthetics, that branch of philosophy that focuses on art and questions of its appreciation and benefits, has long been discussed in terms of cultural impacts on communities, but there’s a growing movement towards employing aesthetics for the purpose of achieving economic goals.

New Geography has an article up that considers this shift in focus. The world is more and more becoming deeply reliant on a model of limitless economic growth, but many cities struggle with poverty and negative feedback loops that perpetuate this issue. Interestingly enough, the idea of The City Beautiful, or using aesthetic principles in urban development, was seen historically as a way to “raise” the impoverished in character, attitude, and usefulness to be contributing members of the community.

For instance, the early 20th-century upper crust framed the conditions of poverty this way: the deprived were laggards on the evolution toward modernity, and they needed aesthetic inspiration. So arose the City Beautiful Movement, whose premise, according to Julie Rose at the University of Virginia, “was the idea that beauty could be an effective social control device”.

Put simply, outside pretty would arouse inside pretty, inspiring civic loyalty and morality in the impoverished.

Ignoring the obvious issue of the perceptions of others based on social and economic class, this policy does, at least, promote art as a socially and culturally relevant and powerful part of human existence. More recently, however, the drive has been on drawing the creative class into impoverished areas (to suffer through harshness and therefore fuel the creative fires), making these areas eventual centres for the edgy, “hip and cool” population and increasing people’s desires to live in an place that exhibits the benefits of modern aesthetics and beautification through public art: economic development through increased reliance on a creative and artistic class among young urban dwellers. The new City Beautiful, as it were.

The article is well worth a read, especially for those interested in urbanization or the arts.

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