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Artist Candy Chang, whose “Before I Die” public art experiment activated a worldwide movement said, “Our public spaces are as profound as we allow them to be.” Chang’s groundbreaking work examines the connection between society and the individual psyche, elevating the importance of the built environment’s role in bridging the gap between isolation and community.
Chang’s first “Before I Die” installation was prompted by her emotional struggles, feeling alone, after the death of someone close to her. She covered an old, abandoned building in her hometown of New Orleans with chalkboard paint and a prompt: “Before I die, I want to….” inviting people to fill in the blank. By the next day, the building was covered in messages, displayed in public. Personal reflections, read and shared by strangers. Today, there are more than 4,000 “Before I Die” walls across 70 countries.
This time of year, many of our normally quiet public spaces light up, literally. They become places where people who might not otherwise meet, come together, as the pop-up Christmas tree and holiday markets invite people to gather and linger. Abandoned parking lots become green and festive. Dark street corners brighten and invite passersby to stop and pick out a fresh tree, or slow down ever so slightly to enjoy the sharp and refreshing aroma, perhaps exchange a holiday greeting.
This time of year especially, we, as designers and architects, are reminded of the transformative power of public spaces. For some, the seasonal influx of opportunity is just a way to make a little extra money. Or, it may be what they have been planning for all year, and integral to their livelihood. For others, it may simply provide a convenient place to buy their tree and trimmings. Or, the bustle of new activity may simply inspire a joyful feeling.
Suddenly, it may not feel so uncomfortable to speak to a stranger on the street corner.