Opinion: How public art improves street safety

An improved intersection in Kansas City, Mo.
An improved intersection in Kansas City, Mo.

Credit: Bloomberg Philanthropies

Credit: Bloomberg Philanthropies

The project included a host of changes, such as open spaces with boundaries marked by boulders and planters, instead of solid slabs of concrete.

In the Westport neighborhood in Kansas City, Mo., where Wyandotte Street meets Westport Road, something seemed to be missing.

The intersection, surrounded by a library, a church, a post office and a kitchen supply store, had charm, but lacked safety. Two streets had stop signs, but the intersection’s width and configuration still posed a hazard for residents trying to cross the street on foot.

But DuRon Netsell, a Westport resident and head of the Kansas City-based urban design firm, Street Smarts Design + Build, thought the intersection had ample space for public art installations mixed with innovative safety upgrades, including wider curbs, plants and dedicated parking for bikes and scooters.

The program, currently accepting applications for its second round of grants, provides up to $25,000 for projects in U.S. cities that use art and design “to improve street safety, revitalize public spaces, and engage residents.”

Up to 20 winners will be announced this fall, which officials said is key timing for cities that are beginning to reimagine the appearance — and importance — of public spaces in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sixteen cities received grants for projects in 2020, including Kansas City, where Netsell worked with city officials and local artists to revamp the busy intersection in his neighborhood.

The project included a host of changes, such as open spaces with boundaries marked by boulders and planters, instead of solid slabs of concrete. Each extension encompasses roughly 400 square feet of asphalt, which the city turned over to four local artists to use as a canvas.

The motifs of each street mural are different, but they’re connected through their use of color.

The transformation goes beyond aesthetics. The new intersection reduced overall vehicle speeds by 45%, shortened pedestrian crossing distances by half and reduced noise levels by 10 to 12 decibels, according to survey data from the city.

Adding the two stop signs was a significant factor in those results, Netsell said, but the curb extensions helped, too, by reshaping the intersection, shortening the crosswalks and making it harder for cars to speed around the corners.

“Right now, having art and fun and creativity in our neighborhoods and communities is such a wonderful thing we can bond over and see, just walking down the road,” Netsell said. “When the art comes in, you know somebody really does care about this area.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram writes for Route Fifty, which covers news, technology, innovation and best practices in state, county and municipal governments across the United States. This story originally appeared online here.

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