Strengthening Communities Through Public Art

Public art has long been recognized as a community asset, but because many of its benefits seem intangible, it is often treated as a low priority, especially during challenging economic times. Yet, several communities across the U.S. have shown that prioritizing public art can lead to increased levels of community engagement and social cohesion. Project examples that feature public art also show that it can function as a powerful catalyst for improved mental and physical health. This article examines how public art has been used as a tool for fostering community revitalization, social connections, and improved health outcomes.

Cities across the U.S., including New York, Los Angeles, and Buffalo, have instituted “Percent for Act” programs, which mandate that a portion of the budget for city-funded construction projects is used to fund and install public art. In 1983, New York City launched its Percent for Art program, and has since commissioned over 300 site-specific, permanent public art works in schools, courthouses, police precincts, and transit sites. One of the latest works, a sculptured water fountain called The Source, was designed as the cornerstone of a new plaza in the Washington Heights neighborhood. The artist’s use of brightly colored mosaic patterns reflects the richness and diversity of the predominantly Dominican local culture. Together with the newly renovated public space, this Percent for Art project creates a new visual landmark that anchors the community’s collective identity.

The Mural Arts Program is a public-private partnership between the city of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Mural Arts Advocates, which creates transformative murals within communities across the city. One of its key initiatives, the Porch Light Program, uses public art to promote health and wellness in Philadelphia. The program organizes participatory mural making with local organizations to create venues where people with and without behavioral health challenges can work alongside one another to reveal a shared purpose. In one example, a team of artists was paired with youth and parents from a local, supportive housing agency, whose residents are often faced with persistent homelessness and poverty. Workshops were held to write and share poetry, which was then illustrated into a mural.

Porch Light is collaborating with the Yale School of Medicine to assess the program’s impact on health outcomes. After two years, researchers found a sustained increase in collective efficacy and improved perceptions of both the pedestrian environment and neighborhood safety. They also observed a decrease in stigma toward individuals with mental health or substance abuse challenges.

Detroit residents responded to an increase in abandoned homes and visual blight with grassroots initiatives that use art to revitalize and repurpose hundreds of vacant lots throughout the city. A large driver of this movement is Power House Productions (PHP), an artist-run, neighborhood-based nonprofit organization that creatively adapts vacant properties to stabilize neighborhoods and inspire the community. PHP first began when its founders invited neighbors to renovate an abandoned home into a community art center. The resulting space is embedded in the residential neighborhood and has become a public venue for engaging in art through theater, contemporary dance, and experimental film. PHP demonstrates the ease with which public art can be used to create new value and strengthen social bonds, especially for neighborhoods struggling with disinvestment.

Whether driven by the community or municipal agencies, public art moves beyond improving aesthetic quality within neighborhoods, by reinforcing social connections, fostering improved health outcomes.

  • User Side Images Image 621
    The Source, a project of NYC's Percent for Art program, reflects the culture of the local community. Photo: Ester Partegàs.
  • User Side Images Image 618
    A mural created by artists and supportive housing residents, brings awareness of mental health challenges. Photo: Steve Weinik via Mural Arts Program.
  • User Side Images Image 620
    Local Detroit residents played a key role in renovating an abandoned home into a public art space. Photo: Power House Productions.