Street art is making its mark on our cities. No longer perceived as simply nuisance graffiti, municipalities are recognising its ability to reignite interest in neglected public spaces. Two new street-art museums will open this summer – one in Amsterdam in July and another in Cascais, Portugal, in August. Lisbon’s city council has a dedicated street-art team in its cultural-heritage department and cities from Valparaiso in Chile to Los Angeles, Berlin and London are providing legal walls on which artists can create.
“We need to reinvent public space to ensure it remains relevant,” says Alexandre Farto, a street artist more commonly known by his nom de guerre, Vhils. “Street artists are an important part of that, they help create spaces that are lively and dynamic.”
Rather than use paint to create his pieces, Vhils carves into walls, creating debossed designs and revealing the archaeology of the wall in the process. “In Moscow I uncovered a communist mural, in Bangkok I found old typography,” he says. “Globalisation means there’s a homogenisation of cities taking place and my work is a way to expose a city’s particular history and to slow people down and engage them with their city.”
Vhils has created a large mural covering two walls in Barreiro, a Portuguese town on the riverbank opposite Lisbon. It is on the edge of a former industrial area that has now been converted into a park. The park was more or less ignored prior to Vhils’s piece but, since its unveiling, a steady stream of people have visited.
It’s this public engagement that Lisbon city council’s street-art team, the Galeria de Arte Urbana (GAU), is most proud of. The GAU was formed in 2008 and, since then, has invited more than 300 artists to decorate the city’s public spaces.
Its co-ordinator Inês Machado has been on the team since day one. “Street art is good for raising awareness of cultural heritage,” she says. “We have used it to give new cultural life to places that might not be considered attractive.”
When Dimitris Papastergiou became mayor of the Greek city of Trikala in 2014 the country was in dire financial straits. With zero budget, he co-operated with local companies, beating a path through bureaucracy to create Greece’s first “smart” city. An online platform for citizens to report complaints has led to road-repair times dropping from one month to seven days while street lighting that switches off when no one is around has slashed electricity bills by 70 per cent. “A smart city respects its citizens,” says Papastergiou. “Technology is a way of improving life.”
This summer Estonia will become the largest free public-transport zone in the world. Tallinn, its capital, has already enjoyed five years of free rides, a scheme that has driven an economic boom and breathed new life into the city. More motorists now leave cars at home, which has helped with congestion and air quality, while city-centre shops and restaurants have reaped the rewards of a public that feels it has more euros to spend while out and about. Estonians outside the city have been clamouring for a similar set-up and free state-run buses will now be servicing all municipalities, making it possible to cross the country without parting with a penny.
Socially liberal, environmentally conscious and gay, Robert Biedron stands out in Poland’s conservative political landscape. In 2014, the LGBT rights activist and MP was elected mayor of Slupsk, a city of 100,000 near the Baltic coast. Since then, his progressive policies have put Slupsk on Poland’s political map. Biedron has become an icon of the liberal left, embodying hopes for a more open, equal and greener country. Right now, he’s preparing to run for a second term in mayoral elections this autumn. However, polls have him as one of the favourites in Poland’s next presidential election in 2020.
How have you improved quality of life in Slupsk?
Arriving in Slupsk, my team and I faced an enormous challenge. The city was in debt and severely neglected. I banked on key values: inclusivity, participation, happiness, sustainable development, innovation and – most importantly – quality of life. Since 2014, debt has fallen due to efforts to streamline management. I have also promoted green modernisation, women’s rights and equality.
What kind of example does Slupsk set for other cities?
Slupsk shows that a city with 100,000 inhabitants can develop at a similar pace to [larger ones]. The pace of growth in Slupsk fills me with pride and shows that a different type of politics is possible.
Polls put you among the frontrunners for the presidency in 2020. What can you contribute to national politics?
Right now, I am mayor of Slupsk and wouldn’t want to speculate about my future. Experience in local government is certainly something that many politicians in Warsaw lack. Paradoxically, one learns more managing small communities than in parliament, where time is spent fighting opponents and on empty talk. In Slupsk, we put a red sofa outside city hall so anyone can sit and talk to me. This social dialogue is lacking in central politics.