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Berczy Park and the importance of public art in cities


Earlier this week a friend of mine was live tweeting a public consultation meeting for the revitalization of Berczy Park in the St. Lawrence Market neighborhood of Toronto. And since I live in the neighborhood, it’s a project that I’ve been following particularly closely–although anything related to the built environmental generally fascinates me.

As soon as I saw the pictures he was tweeting out, I was immediately excited. And after reviewing the full design package (which you can download here), I must say that I think it’s going to be a brilliant change for the neighborhood. 


On an entirely superficial level, I like the paving motif they’ve chosen; even if it does appear to be be a copy from somewhere else (see above photo). I don’t think one should underestimate how small details, like paving, can have a huge impact on how one feels in a space, whether inside or out. It all counts.

But beyond just cosmetic changes, there are a couple of significant design changes being proposed.

First, a larger kid-friendly green space is being proposed on the west side of the park. And what was interesting to see was how the community overwhelmingly expressed a need for this play area. I’d like to believe that this speaks to the growing acceptance of raising kids downtown. There are certainly lots of families in the St. Lawrence.

Second, the south portion of the park is being “opened up” with a much larger hardscape area. The result will be a bigger promenade along Front Street, as well as, what I hope, will become an “urban stage” for people to hang out, breakdance, busk or try and sell me things I don’t need.

But equally exciting is the fact that along with the revitalization of Berczy Park will come a public art competition. It’s already in the works, but there aren’t any pretty images to share, just yet. Regardless, I think the topic of public art is an interesting discussion.

In a lot of cities around the world, there are mechanisms in place to encourage or mandate public art. Commonly, it comes in the form of a “Percent for Art” program, which means that, in the case of a new construction project, 1% of the construction costs would or should go to public art.

But the fact that we, at least in some cities, have programs to mandate it, should immediately signal to you that public art is not something universally believed in. And certainly it’s one of those things where it’s hard to measure the return-on-investment. 

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t or can’t exist.

In fact, I would argue that in today’s information and digital age it’s only going to become more important. We are living in a world of too much information and too little time. We’re living in a noisy world and, whether you’re a corporation or a city, the only way to stand out is to be remarkable. You need to bring delight to people.

Because when you do, you get noticed (and probably shared on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat, Vine, 500px, Flickr and maybe even Google+). As one example, how many of you recognize the public art piece below? It’s in Vancouver and I’ve seen it pop up a number of times in my social news feeds. It’s something that brings delight to people. 


But at the same time, it’s something that speaks to and creates a sense of place. What could be more Vancouver than a giant blue raindrop along the waterfront? And that’s really one of the ironies of today’s digital world. Despite the fact that, no matter where we are, we’re all hyper connected through technology, more and more of us are gravitating back towards cities. We want to live close to other people and we want to feel a sense of place.

When done properly, public art can help cities achieve that. Whether it’s the famous LOVE sculpture or Richard Serra’s controversial Tilted Arc, public art can make you stop and take notice of your environment. It can give you that sense of familiarity or it can take you by surprise. Either way, it gives you a sense of place.

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