Art and Urbanism: How Re-conquering the Public Space Improves the Community


By Santiago Martínez

Latin American cities are at odds with themselves. On one hand they can harbour the richest and wealthiest citizens in their country, host the wealthiest companies in skyscrapers, become world renowned cultural hubs and sprawl with political participation. On the other hand, immense shantytowns can extend beyond the horizon, crime rates are staggeringly high and inequality triggers thick social tensions.

Yet through all this, urban art movements and tactical urbanism efforts have linked together in order to overcome these complexities, urban art focuses on making the city not only a place to live, but a place of shared values, collaboration, community and inspiration. By empowering the city-dwellers from all walks of life, the citizenry can retake public space and make it theirs, alleviating social tensions, promoting common values and reasserting themselves as individuals. In other words, building social capital.


Here are four ways the urban art movements have improved Latin American cities:

  1. Helping artists and community members get to know each other.

One of the most important features of a community is for residents to build bonds with each other. And that can only be done when you meet each other. Participative urban art projects help facilitate this. An example is the Las Palmitas project in Pachuca, Mexico, which called on different kinds of people to paint one of the biggest mural projects in the country.

        The project, pushed forth by the art collective Germen Crew, promoted social cohesion as all people were brought to Las Palmitas, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the city, to paint a whole neighbourhood to create a “macro-mural”, in which each house is part of the whole, just like each individual is part of the community. Rival gang leaders even put down their weapons to help paint in this project. .

  1.     Making them realise that the community is theirs.

Rebuilding a damaged social tissue is tough, and usually one of the most daunting obstacles for doing so is to make people care. The world renowned Spanish art collective Boa Mistura understands that people are more likely to  take care of something if it belongs to them. Boa Mistura has worked in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, a low-cost housing project in Panamá City and one of the poorest neighbourhoods in La Havana (see video above).


Nueve Arte Urbano, a social enterprise from the city of Querétaro in México, collaborated with the government to have murals painted all over the city with the particularities of each neighbourhood. They interviewed the house dwellers of each neighbourhood and asked them stories about their childhood, their life or whatever they wanted to tell. After that, artists came together to paint that particular story that the person told with beautiful murals. The people of the community felt invested in this project, as it was their stories that were being told.

  1.     Inspiring them.

Inspiration makes us human. It can also change the course of our lives, especially when involved in difficult situations. In difficult neighbourhoods, where crime thrives and economic conditions are dire, a beautiful painting with an inspiring message can change the outlook on life. Favela Painting, a German art collective has done this since 2005 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. They create beautiful murals with an explosion of colour, changing an environment.

Wikimedia Commons/CC/André Sampaio
Wikimedia Commons/CC/André Sampaio

Movements are born out of inspiration. Acción Poética (Poetic Action) is a movement that has sprung up all over Latin America with its origins in Monterrey, Mexico by poet Armando Alanis Pulido. The objective is really to inspire, without touching on politics or  religion. Suddenly phrases such as, “Let’s be realistic, let’s do the impossible” or, “the most revolutionary action today is to conserve happiness,” pop up the streets of cities and are uploaded to the Internet. Such phrases change a mere wall into an inspiring public work of art.

Sources of inspiration and social cohesion do not only come from urban muralism. Sometimes it can come from the sky. Casagrande Collective, a Chilean effort, has decided to drop poetry. Cities that have been previously bombed by military interventions, such as Santiago, London, Guernica, Dubrovnik, Warsaw and Berlin, see 100,000 poems fall from the sky, as a helicopter passes by letting them float down into  the city. The poems are meant to inspire, as one city that has lived through horrors in war reads beautiful poetry at the same time.  

  1.     Breaking routine.

Breaking a routine has an effect on the mind’s health. It expands horizons and cultivates an individual. New experiences have been shown to inspire change in people, and thus urban art has the ability to do so. One example is El Cine Vino, an itinerant cinema in Chile that goes to the most concealed communities of the country and brings them showings from all over the world. The effect is to unite a community in one activity, but also to cultivate the individuals and expose them to different cultures.

Another of such efforts is the Colombian Paradero ParaLibros ParaParques. It is a government urbanism program that brings wandering libraries into parks, where anyone can grab a book and start reading. It is a question of accessibility and of interaction, as they are cultivating their literary skills as well in the public space.

Urban art has the potential to bring people together through one of the oldest impulses we have had as a civilization. Art can bind us and change us, and so change the social structures in which we are driven. There are many ways to heal a city, and art is one of them.