The Constraints of Creating Art for the Public Right-of-Way

in creating this project the artists worked hard to ensure the artwork was a non-trip, non-slip surface.*

The SDOT Art Plan gives us lots of examples of great ways to make our streets and sidewalks more fun, interesting, and enjoyable.  From inlays in sidewalks, painted signal boxes, to street furniture and enhancements to walls.  The plan seeks ways to help enhance the right-of-way to improve the experience of users.  But what is really involved in siting artwork in the right- of-way or including a beautiful enhancement?  There are a number of issues we must always address including safety, maintenance, constructability, longevity, and functionality.

Safety is always first and foremost for SDOT, even when it comes to artwork.  It goes without saying, the department always complies with the “no tripping hazards” guidelines set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, in addition there are other aspects of safety that the department must consider when installing art in the public right-of-way.  For instance, if something is located physically in the roadway (such as a bike rack used for on-street bike parking) it must be “break away,” such that damage to a vehicle colliding with the artwork would be minimal and there’d be no injuries to the driver or passengers.  When applying paint to a street or sidewalk, a specific type of paint that contains grit must be used in order to prevent the surface from being slippery.  Artwork cannot resemble traffic signage, or if it is to be located near a traffic signal, it cannot utilize green, yellow or red lights so as to be confusing to drivers.

The Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs has a conservator who takes care of the city’s 1% for Art public art collection.  The conservator reviews potential artwork for durability and location and maintains the artwork over time.   However, artwork in the right-of-way that is owned by SDOT must be very low-maintenance as the department does not have a staff conservator.

While we always look for opportunities to add a something special to enhance a project, we must weigh the constructability of an artwork – can the artwork be done efficiently within the time frame and process of the project construction?

Longevity – have you ever wondered why sidewalks have those score marks and joints? Yes, they do serve a purpose – they can help prevent sidewalks from cracking in freeze/thaw conditions when the concrete shrinks and then expands.  The same challenge applies for an art or decorative element; can the artwork withstand Mother Nature?  On a different level of longevity, artwork in the right-of-way must also be able to stand the test of time and be relevant decades from now as it is to today.

Art in the right-of-way quite often is functional in nature such as seating or way-finding signage; however, sometimes the art work strives to serve in broader sense by adding beauty or a sense of identity for a neighborhood.

The next time you see art in the public right-of-way, consider some of these guidelines and you’ll discover there truly is more to the artwork than meets the eye!

* Commissioned with Seattle Department of Transportation Emerging Funds, 1% for Art funds, and Bridging the Gap transportation levy funds. Administered by the Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs