Where Do Arts and the Environment Intersect?

Article Photo

If we are to be effective stewards of the natural environment, we must be stewards of the urban environment. Until most of the human population can live well and thrive in cities, we will not stand much chance of reliably reining in our greenhouse gas emissions, our consumption of precious resources, our encroachment on wilderness and habitat crucial to other species, or even our attitude of entitlement and ownership of this planet.

And building, developing and stewarding our cities is a process that could benefit greatly from the guidance of artists. People who make, create and perform have historically displayed unusual skill at making cities their natural habitat, and their work, by relating the human experience to both the built and natural environment, and by exploring new views on relationships and situations, help the rest of us enjoy living in closer proximity to other people. Art makes cities exciting.

In a panel discussion hosted Thursday at the Olympic Sculpture Park, moderater Michael Kinsley (founding editor of Microsoft's Slate and former co-host of Crossfire, among other journalistic accomplishments) asked local experts to consider the role of the arts and cities in the environmental movement.

The panel comprised a group of local experts in diverse fields: Peter Boal, artistic director of the Pacific Northwest Ballet; Daniel Friedman, dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the UW; Maggie Walker, vice president of the SAM and past and present chair/committeewoman of some of Seattle's most respected cultural and environmental institutions; and John Sutton, Ben Beres and Zac Culler of SuttonBeresCuller, a collective producer of public art whose impact has been compared to that of Merce Cunningham, John Cage and Morris Graves.

Boal and Friedman strongly advocated the role of artists as interpreters, translating themes from the world around us, and also providing a lens through which we can view, connect with and understand our own deeper feelings, fears and desires. "Art makes it safe for us to come into contact with the wild, with our own playfulness … vibrancy in our community is a modulation between the wild and the ordered." He later went on to describe a very practical role that artists' work plays in inviting people into, and fundamentally changing, urban spaces – the familiar sequence of artists inhabiting otherwise unappealing, often cheap and underdeveloped, urban areas which then go on to become the most iconic and desirable urban neighborhoods, from SoHo to Seattle's Capitol Hill. In Friedman's words, artists generate a key phase in "the maturation of urban zones" (the irony being, as Kinsley pointed out, that "then Whole Foods arrives, and the artists can't afford to live there" … as another panelist noted, Capitol Hill is currently experiencing possibly the largest exodus of artists and arts institutions from any one neighborhood in the nation).

SuttonBeresCuller are now embarking on a project that will connect art, city and environment in a very practical way. Their Mini Mart City Park will convert a derelict Georgetown gas station into a public park and conservatory. What I love about this project, and what I think makes it particularly artistic, is that the finished park, according to the group's renderings, will still look much like the original station (Can we imagine a day when children playing in the park will need their parents to explain to them what a gas station was?).

The sculpture park – arguably Seattle's proudest recent accomplishment in the collaborative interest of metropolitan space, artistic expression and environmental stewardship – made a fitting backdrop for the conversation. It's difficult to even imagine that the gorgeous PACCAR Pavilion, with its stunning view of the Sound, the Olympic mountain range, the towering sculptures of steel and stone, that the property was once a poisoned industrial wasteland. But as Ms. Walker emphasized, our city needs many more jewels such as this one. "I would like to see us taking leftover places back, creating places where we come together, draw people in. People can learn more about stewardship here [at the sculpture park] than from most environmental education projects. It isn't only about preserving wildlife; it isn't [a choice between] land or man

There are several big opportunities facing Seattle on this front, and Walker named those on the top of her list. She applauds lidded reservoirs that double as parks, and wants to see an inter-neighborhood collaboration on a plan for Seattle Center. In the south end of Seattle, residents have almost "no access to green space," and need parks, P-patches and other natural amenities to improve public space and quality of life.

But the great obstacle, she said, is our city's tendency to move too slowly, and to put off decisions. Among her own friends, the most popular justification given by those who voted against the defeated plan for the Seattle Commons was, "It'll come up again." The 61-acre park that would have allowed residents to travel from South Lake Union to downtown in uninterrupted green space, was never built. "Cities need to seize their opportunities," Walker said. (The elephant in this room, of course, lives along the waterfront).

"Cities are going to get us out of this mess," said Cascade Land Conservancy president Gene Duvernoy, in closing. "Art is going to make cities places we want to live."

Photo credit: Julia Steinberger