This month saw the return of the highly acclaimed and multi award winning Nuart Aberdeen, a festival of street art which has transformed many a city centre wall and brought tens of thousands of visitors to the city, with new works created this year around the theme of reconnecting after two years of lockdowns and social distancing.  While it is anticipated that these, as well as existing murals, will be features of the city for years to come, this month also saw the removal of one of the most iconic murals from the first festival – “Because you are that light”, painted on the Aberdeen market building – as the market has now been demolished for re-development and the mural removed with it. Given the significance of that mural to the city since its creation in 2017, and its contribution to the character and sense of place of the area in which it was located, the combination of its loss and the appearance of the new works created elsewhere for this year’s festival gave us cause to think about the role of public art in placemaking, and the role of planning in facilitating that.

Art in placemaking isn’t of course anything new, and indeed the recent BBC Scotland programme Meet You at the Hippos reminded us of the role that street sculptures played in shaping Scotland’s new towns of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, with the programme describing these as having been “….there for everyone, designed to define the places it was made and to mean something to the people who lived alongside it.” Perhaps most importantly in this regard, these works of art were designed to be accessible to everyone, both in terms of the nature of the works (such as the concrete hippos which gave the programme its name) and the location of them (being in highly visible places such as play parks, underpasses and next to bus stops), and the relationship between people, art, and these public spaces was redefined in the process.

As with those street sculptures, public art more generally delivers a number of placemaking benefits, with commentors highlighting the contribution this can make to:

– strengthening the connection between people and place;

– transforming and reanimating public spaces, filling them with colour, soul and emotion;

– making places more inviting and people friendly, encouraging walkability and feeling of safety, particularly when used in places such as underpasses;

– connecting people with the culture and vibe of their community, creating enhanced social cohesion;

– fostering local civic pride and ownership;

– taking people off the beaten track into areas they might not otherwise have gone, giving them a new perspective on such areas, as well as them spending more time and money there; and

– creating gateways and assisting in navigation/wayfinding.

So, given the potential of public art to contribute to good placemaking, what is the role of planning in facilitating that?

Notably, current Scottish Planning Policy is silent on the topic, but this is set to change when the fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4), which incorporates Scottish Planning Policy and the National Planning Framework into a single document, is adopted later this year. Specifically, the draft version of NPF4, on which public consultation was recently completed, proposed new policy provisions with regards to culture and creativity, including a requirement that:

“Development proposals should seek to make provision for public art where they involve a significant change to, or the creation of new, public open spaces.”

The expectation then is that public art will increasingly be delivered as part of new developments, and developers should make provision for this from the outset, something we definitely welcome.

While this represents a positive change at national level, it is though not a new concept for local planning authorities, many of which already require developers to make contributions to public art, or have done so previously.

For example, The Highland Council’s Highland-wide Local Development Plan (2012), and related supplementary guidance, explicitly recognise the role of public art in delivering well-designed, locally distinctive built environments with a clear sense of identity and place, and require developments to incorporate public art (or make a developer contribution) where it is considered that there would be benefits in doing so (namely, national or major developments, or development on sites that are in prominent locations or are otherwise of significance).  The supplementary guidance then also sets out a number of guiding principles which public art should aim to follow, one of which is that community engagement should be a central consideration when developing any public art initiative, as it is the community that will take ownership of the products of these, with it also being important to ensure that public art projects are accessible to everyone within the community (as the hippos were, and continue to be).

Likewise, we believe that public art projects are most effective when they are part of a larger, holistic, multi-disciplinary approach to enlivening an area, particularly when that is inspired and commissioned by and for local communities. So, for example, community activities (including workshops on such things as creating small paper collages for others to find, and a senior citizens’ graffiti class) form an important part of the Nuart festival and are as significant as the murals themselves in fostering community engagement, inclusion, skills development and showcasing local talent.

What draft NPF4’s proposed new policy on culture and creativity does not do however is expressly encourage the incorporation of new works of public art into (or onto) existing public places and spaces and, given the placemaking benefits that public art, such as the Nuart murals, delivers (in particular in terms of reanimating the places in which they are located), it is clearly important for the planning system to support this too.  On the one hand, some might of course question whether express policy endorsement for such proposals is needed, with Aberdeen City Council for example having clearly approved the Nuart works despite there currently being no specific policy provisions with regards to such proposals in place at either a national or local level. On the other hand though, increased policy support could help encourage more such proposals, allowing more places to experience the benefits of these.

Lastly, as recognised by Creative Scotland, there is more to places than just their physical infrastructure (with these also being shaped by how they feel and who is taking part in them), and the contribution that culture can make to placemaking and reanimating public spaces equally doesn’t need to be restricted to public art and other static interventions. Rather, to our minds, planners should ensure that physical infrastructure in public spaces facilitates all forms of formal and informal cultural activity, and is able to adapt to incorporate different activities over the years, including public art.

Meanwhile, we would encourage you to take a look at Aberdeen’s fabulous Nuart, and Meet You at the Hippos is well worth a watch.

Thanks for reading!

Pippa and Maggie

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