You’re Missing a Free, Ubiquitous and Powerful Walkability Tool
by Nick Broad, Lily Maz and Vivian Doumpa
Look at you.
You’re on the edge of a walking revolution. You’re going to save us from the banality of living in sprawling, sterile, homogenous and polluted “malls-without-walls”.
How do you make cities liveable again? How do you make them more social? How do you encourage interaction, happiness, healthiness? These are questions that have never been more relevant, and you are the ones finding the answers!
But you may be overlooking something powerful, cheap and ready to use.
Imagine a placemaking “tool” in the centre of every city, which attracts people for its beauty and entertainment. This tool makes people have meaningful experiences in the public realm, one that they will remember their whole lives, one that ultimately inspires them to come back.
It encourages people to make eye contact, smile and interact. It’s cheap and can be easily installed in every public space. It’s good for the economy. It’s better than benches, statues and fountains because it’s human, it’s engaging, it’s tailored for every occasion and – most importantly – it has been proven to work for millennia.
This tool is called “your local street performer”. And they’re everywhere.
Lighter Quicker Cheaper Busker
Engaging a community is not just a product of design, but how you continue to encourage people to experience your space. In other words, to turn your pedestrianised area into a destination, you need to co-curate what happens after you’ve launched.
And what would you rather, a place where no art is created, and people just walk on by, or a culture akin to Covent Garden, Sydney Harbour, Pier 39 or Granville Island? I know what I’d choose, and so do members of the public.
Thankfully for you, busking is facing real challenges in the 21st Century. The cashless revolution may physically stop their audience from being able to donate, and overeager lawmakers are increasingly installing licenses, auditions, scheduling, fees, fines, equipment confiscations and arrests. This is the landscape the modern busker is facing.
And this is great for you – in this combative climate, you can quite easily get on the good side of your local artists. If you approach them with encouraging language and simple rewards (webspace, signage, good spots and a positive code of conduct), they’ll see you for what you are: a friend in public places, something that is increasingly rare.
So, how do you create a positive busking ecosystem?
There are two points that we all need to remember. First, that it’s immoral to audition, license and schedule talent like a private gig but not pay them like private artists – especially if you’re trying to do that on public property. And second, that all this is immaterial if people don’t expect or accept the new busking scene.
Thankfully, both these issues can be solved in the same way. First of all, open your streets up, and encourage the best local artists to come. Make them feel like superheroes. Busking is a Darwinian market – only the best survive. So if you encourage a good top-end, you’ll find that lesser-talented buskers search for gigs elsewhere.
Second, encourage people coming through your town to appreciate street performers. This requires signage, press releases, media events – but all of that is beneficial to your program anyway, as you’re advertising (and reinforcing) the positive effect you are having within your own artistic community.
It’s easier than you may think.
On the one hand you have artistic hippies talking about free expression. On the other, no manager of public space wants to be seen as the reason why the High Street is full of drunken hobos.
But at the end of the day, you are all working towards the same goal: making people happy.
All you need is a bridge across the divide: someone who understands the pressure of maintaining and managing public space, but who speaks the same language as buskers, and can help get the initial dialogue going.
If there are no artistic bodies in your area with strong ties to the busking community, we can help. We’ve worked with major and minor outdoor festivals, transit authorities, arts advocacy groups, major brands, and buskers for three years.
Recently, we’ve also paired our placemaking efforts with an app that gives people the ability to see who’s performing near them, right now, thus advertising your busking “hotspots” – the places you want people to go. Best of all, the app records usage data to see if locals are appreciating the new system. In other words, you will be able to see hard data showing the social and economic benefits the buskers are having in your space.
Walkability Without Wealth
I am an extremist; I believe that busking is the single most honourable way that an artist can make a living. On the street, there is no PR, no cult of celebrity, no entrance fees, no service charges or security guards. No clever lighting, fancy billboards, sponsorship deals or product placements. No middlemen. Just an artist and their audience.
Better still, these hugely popular performers create the only readily available form of art that is consumed by society’s least-served communities.
And they do this without writing grants, putting on launch parties or running elaborate social media campaigns. They do it for free, for everyone, regardless of background, wealth or race.
So next time you’re wondering what the best bench or tree or audio/visual installation is for your next project, stop for a second and ask yourself: “what is the most human and engaging and cheap and accessible and real walkability tool I can use?”
All photos in this article are by The Busking Project. In 2011 we filmed and interviewed performers in 30 countries on 5 continents, finding out who they were, what they wanted and how we could help. The result was busk.co
The Busking Project won a walking Visionary Award with the project “The Busk App“.