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Street art

One of a series of street environment design guides.

Description of the element

Community based summer art exhibition in Lisbon

This design guide explores older people’s preferences to different forms of street art, and suggests how these preferences may be taken into account when implementing street art.

Context and existing guidance

Unlike most other forms of art, street art can be appreciated and enjoyed (or not!) by everybody.There are many reports stating that participation in art education can promote a sense of well being and have a transforming effect on the lives of older people but there is little research on the effect of street art on older people’s ability to enjoy places such as urban open spaces, green spaces or parks, etc. The ‘Streets for All’ guide (English Heritage 2005) recommends the use of temporary and permanent public art to provide a new dimension to spaces and it also encourages authorities to adopt a public art strategy to reflect the character of places. Previous research (Burton and Mitchell 2006) has determined that the distinctiveness of aesthetic features such as ‘water pumps or fountains’, play an important role as reference points in helping people with dementia to find their way through an environment. However these features need to be long term because regardless of their distinctiveness temporary features may have little usefulness as wayfinding cues for older people.

top of page What older people tell us they prefer and why

Graffiti art along the neighbourhood street
Graffiti art in a local neighbourhood park

65.5% of participants in our survey did not like graffiti. Although graffiti can be considered as a street art form it is often thought of as unsightly and illegal and consists in scratching, scrawling and painting or spray painting of lettering on walls and similar surfaces.

It’s mainly older people who hate it and the reason they hate it is because it’s something foreign to them and the misinformation they get about it comes from either cops or the media. There is a big misconception that it is gang related and so it makes older people nervous and scared when they see it like they're in a “bad area” (opinion of a graffiti writer on a web forum).

According to previous research (DTLR 2002), older people are put off more than any other group from using public spaces is they are vandalised or have graffiti, with the 56-65 age group being particularly concerned about this factor.

By contrast, art is based upon aesthetic appreciation and sensual stimulation, often stirring the imagination to such an extent that the viewer is deeply moved by the whole experience. Art still continues to delight, inspire and relax us, playing upon our emotions often having a significant effect. Art can also be used to entertain, amuse, provoke and confuse, two examples of which are shown below.

One of a series of sculptures of workers on office buildings in Totonto
Opportunity for passers buy to sit alongside a sculpture in Lisbon

66% of participants of our survey preferred more 'traditional' street art such as statues, which were described as "educational" and "attractive"; similarly 72% of participants said they liked classic style water features such as fountains. In contrast just 29% were in favour of modernist abstract sculptures.

A fountain in the middle of footpaths and good positioned seating

Findings from the physical audit survey

Typically 14.5% of our participant’s street have the presence of grafitti but here we observed the form of grafitti that we would refer to not as art but as unsightly lettering and scrawling on walls.

Bar chart 1 evidence of incivilities within a participant’s street

Bar chart 1 evidence of incivilities within a participant’s street

When we surveyed the provision and form of art within a participant’s street we found that most streets (95.5%) had no art with the range illustrated below.

Bar chart 2 Provision of Art within a participants street

Bar chart 2 Provision of Art within a participant’s street


The challenge with the provision of street art would seem to be providing various forms of art, including grafitti as art, which older people can enjoy whilst detering the installation of informal ‘art’ such as grafitti scrawling. Consideration should therefore be given to the following issues:

  • To provide interesting, pleasant and understandable art features for older people’s perception and ability to enjoy places;
  • Where possible to provide permanent art features to aid wayfinding for older people that experience memory difficulties;
  • To discourage the spontaneous manifestation of graffiti or other street art manifestation that put older people off using spaces;
  • To provide water features wherever practicable;
  • To ensure that art features are appropriately positioned so that they can be easily viewed and experienced, and, in the case of temporary and multiple exhibitions to ensure that they do not cause street clutter or affect the use of the space by older users;
  • To consider aspects such as maintenance, resistance to vandalism and durability in the provision of street art.

Case Study

Graffiti: Street art - or crime?
By Arifa Akbar and Paul Vallely
Extract from The Independent Newspaper, Wednesday, 16 July 2008

A piece of graffiti, allegedly by Banksy on a wall in central London. The artists work now sells for considerable sums of money

Establishing the extent to which graffiti is street art or vandalism has proved very difficult. On one hand, as stated by the Independent newspaper the Southwark Crown Court has jailed for up to two years 5 members of DPM graffiti crew; a south London graffiti artists group for defacing public property. On the other, the riverside facade the Tate Modern Museum has been covered in giant murals by six urban artists with international reputations, including Blu from Bologna, Faile from New York, and Sixe art from Barcelona, in the first display of street art at a major museum.

Whether Graffiti is art or vandalism is a question which prompts different answers in different parts of the world, says Cedar Lewinsohn, the curator of the exhibition at Tate Modern. “Brazil for instance is more relaxed about it,” he says. “In parts of Australia, they are like the UK and people really hate graffiti and tags on vans and trains, but in Melbourne van drivers compete with each other as to whose is more decorated.” Some 85 per cent of graffiti is just tags, and another 10 per cent is gang communication, according to US sociologists.

The man to credit for bringing street art into established gallery spaces is Banksy who has been involved in graffiti since 1982. He now works for a London art gallery and describes himself as an upstanding taxpayer.

“London is to street art, at the start of the 21st century, what Paris was for Impressionism at the start of the 20th, and yet we hate graffiti more than anywhere else in the world. England is by far and away the most draconian for punishments for what are only economic crimes..how can artistic expression be reconciled with the fear and loathing that graffiti inspires in many citizens who see it as a symbol of lawlessness and the deterioration of their neighbourhood? I suppose the greater the cost of removing the graffiti, the greater the punishment should be, though not prison,” says Bansky.

This is a similar view to that of Judge Hardy’s verdict on the two-year spree in which the DPM Crew staged 120 night-time attacks on stations, trains and railway rolling stock in London, Somerset, Liverpool, Manchester, Sunderland, Paris, Amsterdam and the Czech Republic. Judge Hardy admitted that “it would be wrong of me not to acknowledge that some examples of your handiwork show considerable artistic talent”, but he concluded, “the trouble is that it is has been sprayed all over other people’s property without their consent and that is simply vandalism.” Over the two years the bill must have run into millions of pounds.

If art is defined by the artist’s intent then vandalism must be determined by the response of the owner of the thing vandalised. Peterborough City Council recently tried to find a compromise. It erected two 8ft by 4ft boards to allow artists there to express themselves freely. The trouble was that they were pulled down by vandals.

Full article available on line at

Where to find further information

Akbar, A and Vallely, P. 2008. Graffiti: Street art - or crime? The Independent Newspaper, 16 July. Available online at http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/

Anon (2007) (opinion of a graffiti writer on a web forum) Available at: http://forum.deviantart.com/community/art/653066/

Burton E. and Mitchell L. 2006. Inclusive Urban Design: Streets for life. Oxford, Architectural Press.

Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (2002). Improving Urban Parks, Play areas and open Spaces. London: DTLR. Available on line at: http://www.ocs.polito.it/biblioteca/verde/improving_full.pdf

English Heritage (2007). Streets for All. London, English Heritage.

Toronto Parks and Recreation (2001) Understanding Personal Safety [online]. New York, Project for Public Spaces, Inc. http://urbanparks.pps.org/topics/management/safetysecurity/toronto_safety_1


This Design Guide is first printed in 2007 and is protected by Copyright Notice © Rita Newton and Marcus Ormerod, I’DGO Inclusive Design for Getting Outdoors.

Corresponding author of this Design Guide:

Rita Newton, SURFACE Inclusive Design Research Centre, The University of Salford, Maxwell Building, The Crescent, Salford, M5 4WT, UK. Email:r.newton@salford.ac.uk

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