Good urban design doesn't just help people engage with their cities; according to artist and designer Candy Chang, it also helps people engage with each other. As co-founder of a civic design studio called Civic Center, Chang creates public spaces that spark conversation and reflect a sense of community identity—often using little more than chalk, stickers, and some creativity.
In New Orleans, for example, Chang transformed an abandoned house into a giant chalkboard where pedestrians could share their life goals (such as traveling abroad, finishing school or telling a parent, "I love you"). For another project, she posted fill-in-the-blank stickers on vacant storefronts so people could suggest future uses for the space, like turning it into a community garden. Here, Chang discusses the importance of details, how public seating can improve neighborhood safety, and why "it only takes a few thoughtful blocks to live a great life."
What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"
I like to make cities more comfortable for people. I like to explore ways we can use public space to improve our neighborhoods and our personal well-being.
What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on how people think about urban art and design?
I think we've only just begun to recognize the power of sharing information in public space to make our places more ours. If you look at many street corners you'll see what people are trying to do. Flyers are spread throughout the interstitial spaces of our cities. A lot of them are really useful, and yet they're often illegal and discouraged.
Communication tools are just as important an infrastructure system as roads, electricity, and sewer drains. If our public spaces were designed differently, we might have more to say to each other than, "Have you seen my cat?"
What's something that most people just don't understand about your field?
I think we're still discovering how much the design of our public spaces can affect our quality of life. Thoughtful public spaces make you feel comfortable, which leads to a chain of other benefits in life, love, and civic engagement. It's all about the details, like stoops, tree canopies, and painted storefront shutters. These things make the streets more inviting, more comfortable, and ultimately safer.
What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the world of urban art or design?
Cities are trying harder to maintain, improve, or create a unique identity that distinguishes them from other cities. Urban art and design will play a big role in that.
What's an art or design trend that you wish would go away?
I'm not a fan of defensive architecture like ledges with spikes. They leave empty wastelands in their wake. It's kind of incredible how far we'll go to discourage people from sitting in public space and how many benefits we could gain from encouraging it. Public seating allows people to pause and enjoy the city for free, and it also means more eyes on the streets. Other people are one of our greatest defenses against crime.