What Public Art Can Do

How art on our streets can bring communities together, beautify neglected spaces, and save lives

An intersection is painted in bright colors. Paint narrows crossing distances and widens sidewalks, and a large red heart in the center reads “LUV MIDTOWN K.C.”
Painted traffic-calming measures at the intersection of Wyandotte Street & Westport Road in Kansas City, MO (Photo by DroneBase for Bloomberg Philanthropies)

By DuRon Netsell

In recent years, many cities around the world have made Vision Zero commitments, but leaders are finding it more difficult than expected to tame traffic violence. Nearly a century of prioritizing moving automobiles as quickly as possible has created unfriendly, unsustainable infrastructure, a dominating and indignant car culture, and increasingly record-breaking automobile-related deaths. The daunting task of undoing this damage is likely to take decades, if not generations. This often leaves city leaders feeling the task of bringing traffic deaths to zero may be insurmountable, which further delays progress and perpetuates the issues at hand. Yet while we wait, people continue to die on our streets.

Fortunately, there are simple, easy, quick, and affordable interventions that can be implemented. In our work with the Midtown Asphalt Art Project in Kansas City, Missouri, Street Smarts Design + Build partnered with Midtown KC Now and the Kansas City Public Works Department to demonstrate a strategy that calms traffic to improve safety for all users and employs local artists to enhance vibrancy: we reclaimed excess asphalt with paint.

With a $25,000 budget provided by Bloomberg Philanthropies through their Asphalt Art Initiative, we were able to blend creative artistic expression with traffic calming and increased road safety. We gave over 4,000 square feet of unused asphalt back to the community with locally-inspired murals. In doing so, we reduced speeds by 45 percent, noise pollution by 10 decibels, and pedestrian crossing distances by half. This project was unique in its identity: It demonstrated an easily replicable process for city leaders to quickly and inexpensively reduce travel speeds and shorten pedestrian crossings to improve the safety of the road for all users.

In order to achieve these results, we brought together a few simple techniques.

(Photos by DroneBase/Getty Images for Bloomberg Philanthropies)

The intersection — located in the historic mixed-use neighborhood of Westport and hazarded by frequent speeding and dangerous pedestrian conditions — was turned into a four-way stop by adding two new stop signs along the edge of curb extensions. We have found stop signs to be one the most effective and affordable ways to slow car traffic: Even the drivers who fail to come to a complete stop still slow their speeds significantly.

Curb extensions are an excellent way to shorten pedestrian crossing distances, slow turning movements, maintain proper sightlines, and slow car traffic without the need for traffic enforcement measures. They also offer a world of possibilities within the reclaimed space, whether it be asphalt art, local vendors, performance space, little libraries, gardening areas, or just more pedestrian space.

Curb extensions can easily be created with a variety of readily available materials. In this project, the curb extensions were fortified with half-ton limestone boulders from a local quarry and 36” polyresin planters to increase pedestrian safety and add native trees. These planters were each planted with a sycamore tree, becoming a miniature nursery for the future permanent installation. We hope that over time, the curbs will be physically extended and landscaped permanently, and the trees will be planted and allowed to grow for several generations. These planters could also be planted with native flowers to attract birds and pollinators, allowing residents to connect with nature, or used for edible gardening to help bring local produce to the community.

Teenagers walk together across the newly-shortened intersection, into the safe area of colorful paint, boulders, bollards, and potted trees.
(Photo by Adam Vogler/Getty Images for Bloomberg Philanthropies)

While there is no limit to what can be done within the reclaimed space created by curb extensions, asphalt art is an easy, inexpensive way to enliven any street or intersection, employ local artists, and show the community that the reclaimed road space is a place that people care about. In this project, we used four curb extensions, the middle of the intersection, and an adjacent blank building wall as our canvas. To select the five artists, Midtown KC Now issued an open Request for Proposals (RFP) and put together a community selection committee composed of various members of the community. It was fascinating to see the different artists approach the project with their own techniques, style, and personality. While we gave the artists complete creative freedom, we did limit them to a palette of five colors; doing so allowed wildly different pieces of art to blend cohesively and come together as one project.

We also found a way to work art into the crosswalks. Being bound by the constraints of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), which limits the colors, shapes, and patterns that can be used within crosswalks, we worked closely with Kansas City’s Public Works Department to find a creative approach within the federal guidelines. This collaboration led to our “heart crosswalks,” which are standard continental crosswalks with the relief of a heart in each white strip. This approach can be duplicated throughout the country and offers an opportunity for local branding specific to a neighborhood, district, city or cultural attraction.

A close-up of an artist wearing sneakers painting the details of a colorful patch of asphalt.
Artist Alex Eickhoff paints a mural on the northwest corner of the intersection. (Photo by Adam Vogler/Getty Images for Bloomberg Philanthropies)

With this project, we’ve proven traffic safety and creative artistic expression can be blended together to improve safety and enhance vibrancy through locally-inspired artwork. We also demonstrated these projects can be done quickly and inexpensively. With $25,000 and a week’s time, we reduced average travel speeds by 45 percent and brought the recorded pre-installation high speed of 49 mph down to 23 mph after the installation was complete. This process and success can be replicated throughout the country to help governments jump-start their Vision Zero aspirations, employ local creatives, and reinvigorate dreary, unsafe intersections. Using art to slow traffic not only brings color and art into an unexpected space but makes the street safer for all users.

DuRon Netsell is the principal and founder of Street Smarts Design + Build, a Kansas City-based urban design-build firm focused on traffic calming and micro mobility infrastructure. He also serves on the board of directors for Midtown KC Now and the Kansas City Riverfront Trails, as well as the Missouri Community Representative for the Mid America Regional Council’s Active Transportation Programming Committee. He spends his free time working with permaculture and native plants at the Blue River Food Forest, with his family, and in nature.

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