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The Higher ED Blog: Public Art and the Importance of Public Consultation

Lorenzo Gonzalez / May 23, 2017

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The Higher ED Blog: Public Art and the Importance of Public Consultation

Have you ever walked by a piece of public art – often worth hundreds of thousands of dollars – without even noticing it? Probably. According to a recent study by graduate students at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University, public art often goes largely unnoticed.

Current trends see cities heavily investing in public art, which is supposed to make places more vibrant and welcoming, however, often these art pieces are almost invisible to the public. Some may suggest that for public art to be noticed, it should be big and bold. However, that strategy does not always prove successful.  For example, in the late 1980s – after much public outcry – Richard Serra’s ‘Tilted Arc’, a massive 120-foot wall of steel (worth $175,000) was removed from the US Federal Plaza in Manhattan and shipped to a junk yard. In the book, The Shock Of The New, art critic Robert Hughes wrote that office workers and passers-by felt insulted by Tilted Arc’s rawness and size and the way it arrogantly sliced the plaza in two. Hughes explained that “good art may not necessarily be good public art”.

Tilted Arc exemplifies the consequences that may occur when decision-makers fail to recognize the importance of public consultation. Ultimately, public art is paid for and consumed by the public, so their input is critical. Research by David Carrier reiterates the above, stressing that public art is bound to fail if it is not accessible, does not relate to its location, or responds to its audience. Another important factor is the setting; public art is more likely to fail if it is overwhelmed or competes with the scale of a site.

Study area: Waterloo, Ontario

Students at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University were interested in how people interact with art in the public sphere, partly to address the issue of unsuccessful public art investments. Art is subjective, and can be deeply personal, which made investigating the topic particularly challenging.

The study measured how people interacted with public art using mental mapping and experience sampling. The mental mapping activity involved putting a map of Uptown Waterloo in front of a participant and asking them to inscribe the map with features they found meaningful. The experience sampling activity involved giving participants a video camera and a GPS tracker, sending them out into the world, and asking them to record observations they found interesting along their walk while their movements were being tracked. The researchers conducted these activities around Uptown Waterloo in an area with a high concentration of public art. In the activity instructions, however, it was not implied that the study specifically had to do with public art so as to not influence participant perceptions of the environment.

What were the results?

The activities captured lots of data, but researchers quickly noticed that people rarely recorded public art on their maps and in their videos. Less than 1% of the features recorded on the mental maps constituted public art, and only 5% of videos recorded during the walk featured public art. Seeing as the study area was selected because of its high concentration of public art, the research team was surprised that it was not being picked up on.

Why weren’t people noticing the art?

As it turned out, the ‘features’ that were most meaningful to people were social spaces, such as bars and coffee shops, and public recreational spaces, such as Waterloo Park and the public skating rink. This speaks to the importance of incorporating public art into features that are important to people. Public art may have greater value if it designates important social spaces, such as town squares.

The GPS tracks, which recorded the speed at which participants walked, also highlighted something interesting. Most participants sped up while passing public art displays. This may be explained by the fact that several art installments were on major thoroughfares, likely because of the value attributed to areas of high pedestrian traffic. Major thoroughfares, however, tend to be used by people who are going somewhere, and who are not interested in stopping to appreciate public art. This speaks to the need for additional research on pedestrian behaviour to support decision-making.

The research underscores that public art carries meaning through its relevance to the audience and its larger context. The community needs to have their say, as they are the primary consumers of public art and streetscape enhancement projects.

What should communities do?

Before installing any public art, public consultation is critical. There should be an opportunity for the community to vote to ensure that the whole process is accountable and transparent, and most importantly, reflective of public opinion. In this regard, experience sampling methods which allow people to record their thoughts through mobile applications could prove an important tool in participatory planning. With experience sampling, members of the public could input information on an app as they go about their usual business. Data generated is a more organic, accurate representation of their thoughts, especially if done anonymously.

It can even be taken one step further by using Augmented Reality apps like Aurasma to show the user a more realistic representation what the future public art or streetscape enhancement would look like. Users can vote for different iterations of the project that they like. Without a doubt, there are exciting opportunities to utilize the experience sampling method to collect richer, more detailed, and more accurate data from the community that can be used to inform the decision-making process when it comes to implementing visual amenities in the public space.


About the study

Exploring Heritage Features in the Public Sphere through Experience Sampling in Uptown Waterloo was conducted by Catharine Brazeau, Lorenzo Gonzalez, Brenda Loi, and Becky Loi.

About the author

Lorenzo Gonzalez is a Masters candidate of Economic Development and Innovation at the University of Waterloo. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and work experience in entrepreneurship and business development, marketing and communications, and project management. Through the MEDI program, he has honed his research and analysis skills by participating in several supervised quantitative and qualitative research projects. He can be reached at

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1987, the Master of Economic Development and Innovation (MEDI) is one of the only graduate programs in Canada focused exclusively on economic development. Students learn economic development theory and practice, and are exposed to leading edge knowledge, tools, and approaches to address contemporary challenges in cities and communities across Canada and internationally.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

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