Urban Renewal: Definition, Projects & Strategy

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Learn about urban renewal as an arts-based practice, including graffiti art, public art, and participatory art. Explore the many facets of community engagement and economic revitalization associated with urban renewal arts projects.

Art, Community, Participation

Since the 1960s, contemporary artists have sought to blur the boundaries between community, culture, commerce, creativity, and art production. Participatory art engaged the public in ephemeral, live artworks, such as the 'Happenings' of American artist Allan Kaprow. On the other side of the Atlantic, the Situationist Internationale experimented with the notion of 'psychogeography' through maps and participatory play. Situationists encouraged participants to explored familiar urban environments in new ways by following unusual routes. The ultimate intention was to inject the experience of the city with political and social possibilities for change.

Situationist Internationale, Psychogeography

As a form of art, urban renewal projects today draw from the principles developed by such artists toward a collaborative practice that combines participatory art, social engagement, and concrete possibilities for change. Community-based initiatives are geared at crime reduction and have the effect of increasing community morale. Urban renewal projects usually materialize as interdisciplinary endeavors combining visual arts, music, cultural activities, architectural development, and community outreach.

Projects most often combine aspects of participation and public art. Public art is an art practice that occurs or manifests outside traditional, formal gallery spaces. It can take the form of site-specific installations, such as park sculptures, or ephemeral performances, such as street theater. Activist art and participatory art are kinds of public art.

Distinct from urban renewal initiatives intended purely for economic revitalization, community-based arts programs are usually sponsored by non-profit grants and local grassroots fundraising projects. Gentrification, for example, is a consequence of urban renewal that involves the displacement of a pre-existing population following the renovation of a neighborhood. With economic renewal comes cultural and financial change, which can force residents to have to relocate due to increases in living expenses.


The Hammer Museum's Arts ReSTORE LA: Westwood Urban Renewal Project, for example, has a goal to revitalize the neighborhood through community engagement, economic stimulation, and beautification through the arts. This project features arts events, music, food, and festivities in an ongoing schedule. Its community outreach endeavor seeks to raise awareness of the potentials for the Westwood neighborhood toward the long-term goal of economic growth through arts and culture.

Grassroots initiatives in Detroit and New Orleans have brought communities together to raise awareness of poverty and crime. Candy Chang's installation art in New Orleans had small scale aspirations and large scale impact. 'Before I Die' (2011) featured a chalkboard that solicited responses to its titular question, beckoning passersby to reflect on the status of community and opportunity. Chang describes the installation as an 'interactive public art project that invites people to share their personal aspirations in public space.' 'Before I Die' started a sensation, spawning walls in poverty-stricken neighborhoods across the world in cities such as Nairobi, Kenya, and Salvador, Brazil.

Before I Die Public Art Installation in Macedonia
Before I Die

Arguably, no place has seen more extremes in economic devastation and urban renewal than Detroit, Michigan. Since 1986, Detroit resident Tyree Guyton has heralded the Heidelberg Project, a community art project that encourages community participation and activism.The Heidelberg Project is more than an art installation; it's a community hub and local hot spot.

Exterior Shot of the Heidelberg Project, Detroit, Michigan
Heidelberg Project

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