As Mayor of Tirana, Albania, Edi Rama had an unconventional strategy to make his city more livable. Before becoming mayor, Rama was a trained artist and moved to Paris in 1995 to practice his craft. When he was elected mayor of Tirana in 2000, Rama directed an army of painters to spread bright colors and creative patterns on buildings throughout the mostly gray city.
In his TED talk, “Take back your city with paint,” Rama describes how he aimed to increase residents’ pride and sense of belonging in their city. “When colors came out everywhere, a mood of change started transforming the spirit of people,” he said. Tirana is not the only city that has used paint as a powerful tool for social change. While most urban development projects require expensive investments and long political processes, these simple uses of paint have made cities worldwide more cohesive, livable, safe, and sustainable:
Using paint to build community pride
Painting Tirana’s buildings did more than make them look more appealing: it changed residents’ perceptions of their city. Rama describes in his TED talk that following the painting efforts, crime and littering fell. Take a look at some of the creative work of Tirana’s artists:
It takes more than paint to make a city livable and equitable, and Rama has not escaped criticism for his efforts to beautify Tirana. In his talk, Rama proudly discusses demolishing more than 5,000 “illegal buildings” in the city, which raises questions about the availability of housing for poor urban dwellers, an essential element of equitable cities.
Still, the transformation of Tirana’s buildings provides an inspiring example of how simple acts can unite a city. The Guardian reported that about 80% of Albanians approve of Tarina’s “facelift.” Rama describes, “The paint on the walls did not feed children, nor did it tend the sick or educate the ignorant. But it gave hope and light, and helped to make people see there could be a different way of doing things.”
Tirana is not the only city where paint is a powerful community-building tool. Since 2005, Dutch artistic duo Haas&Hahn has worked with residents to paint creative designs in Vila Cruzeiro, a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Haas&Hahn aim to confront negative perceptions of favelas using the same ground-up, citizen-driven process with which the favela was built. They recently crowdfunded over US$100,000 to paint the entire favela.
Paint can save lives, too
City leaders have a number of instruments to design safer streets. But citizens can play a role, too. By painting murals at intersections, citizens can make neighborhoods safer and more attractive. Brightly colored intersections can catch a driver’s eye, making them drive more slowly and cautiously.
Advancing sustainable transport can be as simple as adding paint
Bus rapid transit (BRT) and bus priority systems can be an important part of a sustainable, livable city. BRT has been shown to save residents time, reduce congestion, and improve the environment, among other benefits. One of the first steps to creating a high quality bus priority system is creating dedicated bus lanes. This can be done almost entirely with paint. Enrique Peñalosa, former Mayor of Bogotá and member of TheCityFix’s Urbanism Hall of Fame, described at a 2007 conference, “We could improve our air quality and dramatically reduce our emissions any time we want. It’s easy to do. All it would take is a can of paint and you’d have dedicated bus lanes. It doesn’t require huge amounts of money. It simply requires a choice.”
In Mexico City, activists who sought better infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists took matters into their own hands. In 2011, residents painted a bike priority lane leading to the doors of Congress to voice their demands. It appears that the city heard residents’ concerns. Last year, Mexico City launched a mobility law that prioritizes cyclists and pedestrians and establishes mobility as a fundamental right.
These examples and many more show that making a mark on your city can be easier than you think. All it takes is a can of paint.