Art for Urban Mobility's Sake

Image via ROJO magazine.

Just months after the launch of its fortwo model in Brazil this past April, smart — the makers of the popular mini two-seater cars — is sponsoring an outdoor art project this month for international artists to beautify massive concrete slabs near heavily trafficked areas around the city of Sao Paulo. The event, which lasts August 27 to September 10, is organized by ROJO, an international arts consortium that hosts similar public arts projects around the world, including Barcelona’s International Outdoor Urban Art Exhibition.

smart’s foray into the arts is an attempt to merge urban mobility, design and sustainability. Earlier this year, the fuel-efficient car company partnered with a French concept store, colette, to design an upscale collection of recycled plastic shoes, organic cotton clothing and hand-made accessories, “created especially for the urban car brand.” That is, an urban car brand associated with luxury, status and a jet-setting lifestyle…with a touch of “green” to attract the world’s eco-fashionistas.

smart’s savvy move to put on a street art exhibition in Sao Paulo appears to be another way for the company to establish itself as a luxury brand — with an eco-conscience — for the masses. Indeed, street art can improve the livability, walkability and safety of a city, just by making public spaces more appealing. In Ocean City, New Jersey, for example, high school art students installed street murals, and the city mayor linked it to greater community involvement and improved neighborhood aesthetics; local police pointed to its traffic-calming effects. (h/t Streetsblog.)

As reported by the Ocean City Sentinel:

“The whole idea has an impact on slowing people down. The Division of Highway Traffic Safety is excited about using art projects in slowing down traffic. They’ve done similar projects on West Coast in Portland. This is the first time art projects are actually being linked to traffic safety,” Simonson said.

Hopefully, ROJO and smart’s street art project will result in similar benefits for Sao Paulo. But why not encourage more public participation?Why not make this a grassroots community arts project? Why rely on an international automaker to set the tone for a concept that might be better executed by the actual residents of the city?

Art for the sake of urban mobility sounds like a great idea. But when coupled with corporate consumerism, it comes across as pure marketing. Sales of the smart fortwo model in the U.S. exceeded expectations last year, and no doubt Daimler AG hopes to achieve similar success with its micro-car brand in Brazil.

From the company Web site:

An average of six million vehicles are on the streets of São Paulo, a city of ten million inhabitants. Every day, around 1,000 new vehicles are registered in São Paulo. These are ideal conditions for an innovative, fuel-efficient and agile vehicle for urban lifestyles such as the smart fortwo.

And that brings up and even bigger point: These are also “ideal conditions” for more sustainable transportation options, like walking and bicycling, or at least something like Brazil’s Zazcar carsharing service. In an increasingly cosmopolitan and motorizing mega-city like Sao Paulo, consumers and automakers alike need to be concerned about the Tata effect, as explained by EMBARQ Senior Transport Engineer Dario Hidalgo in a previous post about India’s newest fuel-efficient car on TheCityFix:

The Nano, and vehicles like it, will help in reducing energy consumption in India and decreasing local and global emissions, compared to the “business as usual” scenario, due to the car’s high efficiency. Cars like the Nano will also improve the quality of life for those able to afford it. (It is important to note that the privileged few who can afford the Nano still comprise a minority in India and the rest of the developing world.)

The problem is that more cars — no matter their size or propulsion — bring more congestion, accidents, sprawl, and, if they rely on fossil fuels, more local and global pollution.

So if smart wants to host an art exhibit, it needs to be careful about the message it’s sending to the people of Sao Paulo. Is it to encourage them to buy these “new, forward-looking and intelligent” cars? Or is to make them stop and think about how beautiful their city can be, hopefully, with less cars, more public spaces and safer streets?

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