Street Art and its Role in Creating Ecocity Culture

…is the title of a presentation I will give at the upcoming Ecocity World Summit August 22-26 in Montréal, Canada. I just found out a few days ago that my proposal got accepted, and so now I’ve got to figure out how to squeeze everything there is to say on the topic into a 15 minute jam dance show talk.

Mission Mural Art

Here’s the general premise:

Throughout history, cities’ identities have been shaped by creative expression. From unique architecture and standout museums to vibrant music scenes and local culinary customs, it’s the flow of the human imagination that lends a city its heart and soul. Art in its most pure manifestation evokes that which does not yet exist, challenging our habitual assumptions about what’s possible and inviting us to envision new ways of seeing things. As such, it’s in natural alignment with the ecocity, an entity whose realization hinges on our willingness to imagine new and different ways of living together and moving around in the age of climate change. While a general artistic approach is the canvas upon which any aspiring ecocity planner must paint her larger vision, there’s a form of creative expression that most closely reflects ecocity culture and its principles: Street art.

Sunday Streets, The Mission, May 8, 2011

As it will be part of a session entitled The Art of Ecocity Building: Art, Community and Public Space I might as well get some extra walkable mileage out of all those photos I’ve taken of the many delightfully unusual activities that go on in my neighborhood.

This visual and musical presentation of San Francisco’s Mission District will show how street art can instill an ecocity mentality in its residents by promoting and celebrating the intangible yet crucial elements of successful sustainable urban design, such as walking, slowing down, marveling at the spaces between, and being an active part of the community. From colorful murals on laundromats to soulful street altars on the Day of the Dead, from dance performances on building walls to makeshift living rooms in parking spaces, this diverse neighborhood reminds us of the importance of a creatively engaged community in the transition of the ecocity from theoretical model to living breathing organism.

The conference this year is organized by the The Montréal Urban Ecology Centre (MUEC), a non-profit organization founded in 1996 which aims to develop and share expertise on the most democratic and viable approaches to sustainable urban development. I had the great pleasure to meet and hang out with Executive Director Luc Rabouin at the last conference in Istanbul, and I just know that this one is going to be very special. Personally, I’m particularly excited about the mobile workshops; the two I’m planning to attend are Bikeable Montréal, exploring the city’s bike network, and Greening the city with urban agriculture, a trip that will take us to Montréal’s largest outdoor produce market and a bunch of community gardens.

Speaking of urban agriculture, I think that food is a huge creative catalyst in rethinking how we live together in the city.

Mission Mural Art
By spotlighting cultural components like street art, music and food that naturally contribute to more walkable, livable cities, this session will help participants to better identify and promote already existing ecocity elements around which any infrastructure changes can and should be designed.
Street Food

I think too often in our modern world we think of solutions to the ecological imbalance on this planet in terms of checklists only: From MPG to LEED and from waste diversion rates to carbon footprints, we are so focused on the tangible that we tend to neglect the power of the sublime. Like the obsession with test scores to measure education, we often pay less attention to the actual process than the desired result. Sometimes all we have to do is stop and listen, even or especially when the music is coming from the most unexpected places…


Sunday Streets, The Mission, May 8, 2011

The point I’ll be trying to make is that there is no one-size-fits all formula to create an ecocity. The most brilliant planners and architects may whip out a blueprint that touches all the right buttons and looks great on paper. By including generous public space, bike lanes, urban creeks, trees, etc they can create the perfect setting for more immediate living in sync with natural rhythms. However, you can’t just whip this guy out of your handbook…

Sunday Streets, The Mission, May 8, 2011

or mandate situations like these…

Sunday Streets, The Mission, May 8, 2011

Sunday Streets, The Mission, May 8, 2011

The challenges we face will not be met by building patterns, politics and technology alone. In order to change the infrastructure of our cities and towns, we also have to change the infrastructure within ourselves. There is a heart and a soul in every place, and art, inspiration and imagination are the windows through which they appear. “Street art” to me is more than just literal paintings or drawings but a symbol for unearthing the creative energy of a place. Discovering that energy is at the core of a shift toward ecocity thinking; nourishing and harnessing it the key to creating a vibrant, organic and lasting ecocity culture.

Sunday Streets, The Mission, May 8, 2011


Crossposted at Daily Kos

This is the sequel to yesterday’s Imagine There’s No Cars in the Streets diary.

If you’re anywhere near Montreal, early bird registration for the Ecocity World Summit ends tomorrow.

For ongoing musical, visual and poetic reflections, check out my site, Tuber Creations – Seeds for Creative Change.

13 responses to “Street Art and its Role in Creating Ecocity Culture

  1. congratulations on being selected!
    best wishes on a successful journey and jam dance talk show!

  2. Talk about introducing the left brain to the right brain. 15 minutes is a real challenge, especially considering the endless, possible definitions of both “art” and “ecocity.” Be sure to let us know if you tape the presentation — I’d love to see how you meet the challenge. And I’m thrilled to hear such a conference exists.

    • Good idea about taping or filming it, Ruth. Maybe I can find someone or perhaps the organizers will do it anyway. The only way I think I’ll be able to pull it off in a somewhat coherent fashion? Rehearsals. ;-)

  3. Congratulations, Sven. I am sure you will do a great job. And August in Montreal sounds like a pretty good gig. January in Montreal? Not so much.

      • I came back to read this because it is so uplifting. I love this line:

        Sometimes all we have to do is stop and listen, even or especially when the music is coming from the most unexpected places…

        A lot of enjoyment can come from the things in life that are unexpected. You are right … stopping to listen is all we need to do.

  4. Congrads! Really exciting topic…my brother is a grafitti artist, muralist – it makes me feel wonderful to know that this kind of expression has a celebrated place in ecocity concepts. My favorite city for street art remains Val Paraiso in Chile, along with foundation walls uniquely adorned all over the hills, there is a place called El Carcel, an ex pinochet prison ground that was converted to city art playground.

    • I’d love to see photos of Val Paraiso, Victoria, that sounds like an amazing place. Do you have any links?

      Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Tubernation: Another good job with the photos, stories, and captions.

    Good luck with your presentation in Montreal.


  6. Hi Sven, Tim Gregory writing from Auckland, NZ. I absolutely loved this blog post as absolutely believe in Eco City culture. I’m wondering if the presentation you gave in Montreal is online anywhere? Would be a joy to view it. Keep up the great work! Tim

    • Hi Tim, so glad you enjoyed this. I had a great time in Montreal and the presentation went over really well. I think it loosened things up a bit between all the serious policy and academic stuff, which in a way really is the point: We’ve got to liven things up and be engaged in and inspired by our surroundings in order to make them into the kinds of places that ecocities strive to be.

      They did do an audio recording of my presentation, and it says on their website that all the recordings will be available soon. I think what I’ll do once I have the audio is to set it to my slides and post it on youtube. I’ll keep you posted. Thanks for stopping in, would love to visit NZ one of these days!

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