Street art has long surpassed mere trend to become an integral part of cities' cultural identities. What was once considered vandalism is now not only accepted but encouraged. The works of once-prosecuted artists such as Banksy and Shepard Fairey are now collector's items; murals can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $20,000 or more. Through their works, artists may even have the power to save cities.
At least, this is what the soon-to-be-razed Belgian city of Doel hoped. Since 1999, the tiny waterfront village has been scheduled for demolition to make room for the port expansion of its rapidly growing neighbor, Antwerp. Most residents took the voluntary payout, but some stayed to fight for survival. The goal of the rebel group, named Doel 2020, is to put their city back on the map by inviting novice street artists to make Doel unique and irreplaceable. Ruins forsaken by city and citizens alike became a playground for artists across Europe.
Concerned the charming town would become water or asphalt, the faculty of architecture of KU Leuven, campus Sint-Lucas Brussels/Ghent did a rehabilitation study of Doel. The designers suggested redevelopment based on a ‘historical layer,’ and pointed out the cities strong public orientation, social fabric, and diversity of micro-gardens.
Even with its new artistic identity, much of Doel is abandoned. The few remaining residents have suffered break-ins and arson. Signs posted in windows claim homes distinguish homes as “inhabited”, but they are few and far between.
Though Doel's fate seemed sealed before the residents had a chance to reverse it, the idea behind Doel 2020 wasn’t as foolish as it may sound. All over the world, cities have been “saved” by art. Abandoned and hazardous after an era-defining nuclear catastrophe, Chernobyl, Ukraine has been painted over by undaunted by the dangers. Devastated by ecological disasters, Bombay Beach, California has become a haven for radical art movements – leading some to call it the “miracle in the desert.” Today it is host to the Bombay Beach Biennale, an annual artists festival. When jobs were lost and Sheffield, Tasmania, residents reinvented their home as kind of open-air art gallery of heroic proportions.
Art is powerful. If these fragile, and at times post-apocalyptic, civilizations could be saved by art, consider how healthier cities could be affected by thinking of them as a canvas. Street art fosters community by strengthening a city’s cultural identity, which inspires residents. When a city’s people are energized they are more apt to come together and feel a sense of ownership and responsibility.