Painting the Town: Part 1 - Enhancing the Public Realm

Streets and squares have always been the most important places in our cities. We have always wanted, nay, needed to come together, meet and socialize, buy and sell, gossip, celebrate and work together, and this all began in public places. Meeting and spending time with other people in a beautiful place is pleasure, it makes us more alive, and creates a sense of gaiety. And we have an innate desire to beautify places where we gather, particularly for special occasions, to increase the geniality of the event.

Give some children chalks and a pavement and they will immediately collaborate to color the street with patterns and drawings. Children learn to make their own inexpensive chalks by mixing chalk powder and pigment with a little water, rolling handfuls into sticks, and letting them dry. Then they are off. In English “play streets”, in Italian piazze, and in European “Wohnstrasse” (Living Streets), children - and their chalk - have free reign for creative expression.

This urge to beautify the street has been taken to high aesthetic levels by the ancient tradition of street painters. Known for centuries in England as “pavement artists”, and in Italy as “Madonnari”, these artists work with high quality chalk to create works of extraordinary beauty. Pavement art can now be seen in cities around the world, and sometimes, through use of trompe l’oeil, appear to create vast chasms in the street revealing waterfalls and nether worlds. While these are created by individual artists working alone, rather than by the community, they always cause strangers to pause and talk to each other, thus enhancing the street’s sociability.

Since 1972, an international festival of street artists has been held in the main piazza of Grazie di Curtatone, Italy, and other festivals (Savannah, Denver, etc) have since appeared across America.

The public realm was always the primary location for community celebration, and usually included elaborate decoration of the streets themselves in the form of flower carpets, sand art, etc. More than just decoration, these festivals originally involved the entire community and have been absorbed into religious celebrations. In India, for example, Rangoli (hand painted patterns on the floor) are part of the Hindu Festival of Light.

Across Italy, in towns and villages like Genzano near Rome, Noto in Sicily, Spello and Cannara in Umbria, communities take great pride in their elaborate “infiorata” (flower carpet festival) temporarily created for the Corpus Domini festival. This day-long event involves months of deciding on a design, preparing the flowers, and an entire night of preparation wherein the community carefully lays a carpet of flowers, each street presenting a unique and beautiful image. Everyone takes part, young and old, and a much needed meal is shared at midnight before the work continues until dawn. The next morning, the streets are awash in celebration and admiration of the artwork before the formal procession where the priest ceremoniously walks along the flower-carpeted streets.

Cannara’s “infiorata” is still a genuine community event, created by the people, and for their own celebration. But in some towns, such as Spello, inundated by bus loads of tourists, it has become more secular and commercial. Organizations are formed to compete for the high stakes prizes awarded for various best carpet categories, and souvenir stalls rake in the profits.

Perhaps the single largest flower carpet in the world is created every two years in Brussels’ Grand Place. Composed almost entirely of begonias, this carpet celebrates great events in Belgium’s history, evoking great national pride.

In some European cities, the floor of the pedestrian zone is decoratively paved with colorful pebbles and mosaics. Freiburg, Germany treats the floor of the whole historic district as a permanent “carpet”. Geometric patterns, flowers, historic, cultural and business symbols emphasize the unique character of each street and square. Outside shops and businesses are emblems signifying the building’s use, and the coats of arms of each of Freiburg’s sister cities are laid in mosaic in front of the Rathaus.In most modern cities today, any street painting typically exists to dictate traffic flow and communicate information to commuters. Some streets are multi-purpose, but there is no doubt that the automobile now dominates. But in some residential areas in Portland, community groups gather once a year to paint an intersection to “take back the street” for the pedestrian.

City Repair, a Portland based non-profit organization, “educates and inspires communities and individuals to creatively transform the places where they live.” They provide a very unique service – helping neighbors to paint (or repaint) an intersection with a brightly colored abstract image. Each neighborhood creates a different design. On the day of the painting, old and young, and even small children are handed a brush and allowed to fill in the lines. These images also serve another purpose - that of traffic calming. When motorists approach one of these brightly painted intersections, they tend to slow down.

Painting the streets can also add life and vibrancy, adding interest but also pride in the communities. In Istanbul, a retired forestry engineer painted a giant staircase up the hill all shades of the rainbow “to make people smile”. This technically illegal act was so prized by the community, that officials, after painting it back to grey, were forced to paint it back to a rainbow. People in adjacent neighborhoods were inspired to paint their stairways too.

Further, in some places painting the streets can be a form of protest or expression, to draw attention to an issue and communicate it to the community. In another rainbow-colored event, activists painted over the typically white crosswalk near the Russian embassy in Sweden to protest Russia’s recent controversial anti-gay legislation. Others use stencils to paint messages on the street and advocate for change. This one in particular again draws attention to our modern usage of streets criticizing cars and lauding the fat-burning bicycle as a preferred mode of alternative transportation.

The floor of our city is our “common wealth” – it belongs to all of us. Whether we paint it, or make it beautiful for special community events, or pave it permanently with patterns and emblems, we are celebrating our shared places and claiming the public realm for pedestrians – for all of us – to socialize, to celebrate, and to enjoy together.