TREND #1: The world is experiencing major population shifts

Our communities will look very different by 2050. Within three decades, if current patterns continue, the number of people over age 60 will double globally from 962 million to 2.1 billion. This will have major implications for how communities address health, accessibility, and housing. Also by 2050, the racial and ethnic makeup of our communities will have altered. In the United States, more than 50 percent of the population will be made up of people of color and the already growing wealth divide between white families and black and Latinx families will have doubled. Large migrations continue around the globe—three times as many people now as 45 years ago are on the move. Systemic inequity and inequality persist.

Public Art’s Response: Holding space for cultural resilience

Public art is a critical tool for telling and retelling our stories. It is a practice that can help us dream, uncover, challenge, and witness through public narratives. Artists have significant roles to play as culture bearers, healers, and facilitators. Urban and rural communities are quickly creating policies and practices to address these changes—employing art and design to achieve their goals of talent retention, healthier regional populations, strong intercultural relationships, and economic growth. Philanthropic institutions are including art and culture in their investment strategies for comprehensive community development. Communities are leveraging art as they navigate complex histories, confront gentrification, and address rampant divisiveness.

TREND #2: Environmental extremes are intensifying

Extraordinary weather events, erratic temperature fluctuations, and the impacts of industry on water, soil, and air quality are all issues that affect our health and other aspects of our daily lives. Scientists anticipate that the global average temperature will increase 4 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the next few decades. This change alone affects water quantity and quality, population health, the predictability of agriculture, and the intensity of storms. During major recent weather events our storm-water, transportation, electric, and communications systems have been taxed and tested. Local governments are advancing strategies to prepare for, manage, and prevent future catastrophes.

Public Art’s Response: Nurturing environmental resilience

Public art has the potential to make our environments more present to us, more visible and alive. Artists and designers are reimagining the way we interact with living systems, harnessing new technologies, helping prepare for ongoing climate instability, and reweaving human connections to the planet. They’re making invisible infrastructure visible, more beautiful, and more functional. Public art can be used as a tool to measure change, bring awareness to issues, mitigate environmental challenges, and imagine possible adaptations.

TREND #3: Public issues are becoming more complex

As cities worldwide grow more diverse and populous, needs increase: for transportation, safety, food justice, sanitation, and a host of other vital elements of urban life. The complicated relationship between public and private spheres grows more problematic as living costs rise and cities struggle to serve their entire populations. As distrust about the effectiveness and honesty of government grows across the globe, democratic participation and civic engagement is spiking and transforming.

Public Art’s Response: Art and design practices are merging and permeating public life

Distinctions among art, design, urbanism, planning, and placemaking are dissolving. The Project for Public Spaces declared 2016 the year when placemaking “went global” because in that year it became clear as never before that the very idea of public is intrinsically linked to what it means to build and live in democratic societies. Large systems and networks are drawing on the skill sets of artists and designers to advance solutions to emerging problems. Design thinking, rapid prototyping, iteration, and innovation are being harnessed across industries and other spheres of activity. Public art is harnessing and humanizing data and technology and encouraging discourse across cultures, communities, and disciplinary “silos.”

This is an important moment for creative and collaborative public art and placemaking leadership—individuals skilled in composing built and cultural environments are needed now more than ever. Equally important is the cooperation that characterizes successful public projects, which are often made through interdisciplinary processes and generative relationships. Finally, public art roots our stories to our place—which is the very thing we need to build strong, thriving communities and a healthy planet.

Betsy McDermott Altheimer is a writer, visual artist, and strategic advisor at the coaching and consulting firm Table Fort. Her practice holds space for transformational change in individuals and nurtures vital, responsive, healthy organizations, networks, and communities. Altheimer has raised over $20 million for art, design, health, and education organizations.

From Public Art Review #57.

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