Art as Placemaking

By Abby Wilkerson

Cities have long considered public art a key component of a vibrant community — an essential element of placemaking and city design, a tool for promoting community connectedness and economic development, and a means of providing people with experiences. Vibrant, thriving communities across the country all have one thing in common: a strong commitment to public art.

People are affected by the presence of art, whether they consciously realize it or not. Suwanee, Ga., mayor and lifetime resident Jimmy Burnette will be the first to tell you that, for the 50 years prior to the creation of Town Center, Suwanee was best known for two things: being home to the Atlanta Falcons and speed traps. It wasn’t until Suwanee had an interesting “place,” which included interesting “things,” that the city started being recognized by national publications as a great place to live.

Public art has become an important piece of what Suwanee does, what Suwanee is, and how Suwanee is viewed. Over the past dozen years or so, the City has undertaken initiatives that have helped transform the community into a distinctive, desirable place to live: a place that stands out for its park system, vibrant Town Center, and engaging sense of community. Concern about community design and appearance are cemented into the fabric and the culture of the city — and immortalized in all of the plans the city has adopted in the last 15 years.

Suwanee understands that quality design, a focus on pedestrians and well-used public spaces, and the inclusion of features that are different, fun and interesting are all important components of keeping a place vital and viable. Public art is also a vital part of this mix.

In 2015, the city of Suwanee partnered with an urban designer and planner to facilitate the development of a public-art master plan. The consultants worked closely with city staff and an advisory committee, as well as numerous other civic leaders. The charge for the plan was to set a vision and develop a 10-year strategy that would help take public art in Suwanee to the next level.

The resulting plan reflects not only the city’s spirit, but also how public space is perceived and used in Suwanee and how public art can be an essential part of that. Few suburban communities have a public realm that is as vital, as cared for, and as central to the identity of the city as Suwanee’s parks and public spaces are. This provides Suwanee with a unique opportunity to add public art that is of special significance and endurance.

Art can establish a community’s identity. Can you imagine New Orleans without jazz? Chicago without the “Bean?” Or Paris without just about everything that makes it so great? These places – and so many more – are inextricably linked to their arts. It is impossible to separate these great cities from their art.

Suwanee, too, has decided to strive to be a great place. Public art, in the public realm and for the whole of the community, is an integral piece of our overall strategy. It’s not enough to simply create a “place.” That place has to come alive – through art, events, activities and just making things fun. People need a reason to keep coming back and connecting.