Manual for Historic Streets

In 2008, Ian Banks was asked by the Historic Towns Forum (HTF) to contribute an introductory piece on public art in their Manual for Historic Streets publication, which brought together a collection of articles by experts in both the theory and practice of good streetscape management. The publication was produced in conjunction with both CABE abd English Heritage.

National policies and guidelines, the purpose and economic benefits of the public realm, and the risk debate were explored in Part 1; and  Part 2,  looked at how one could achieve high quality in the various elements which make up the streets – from paving and street furniture to lighting and public art. Ian’s article ‘Public art – guidelines for commissioning’ is in Chapter 2.18.

Click on this link to download Part 2 here, or scroll down to read it in full below.

Chapter 2.18 – Public Art – Guidelines for Commissioning

Ian Banks, Atoll Ltd


Public art encompasses all the art forms, including the visual arts, performance, music, video and new media. The prime requirement is that projects or events are publicly accessible and site specific – designed for a particular place at a particular time. Projects may be permanently or temporarily sited and locations can include the interiors of buildings, the spaces around them, parks and waterways as well as the rural environment. Increasingly, public art encompasses new technologies and includes the use of light and projected images.

Artists should have as much freedom as possible to respond to sites and possibilities in their own way; briefs should be open, not prescriptive. Their work may mirror and interpret the environment of the place and this can include the exploration of difficult or sensitive issues.

The appointment of an artist should be considered at the outset of projects, preferably pre-feasibility, but certainly pre-planning. Artists should be treated as part of the design team – not as an exotic option, but as a cultural necessity.

Arts in Regeneration

Increasingly public art overlaps with the related disciplines of architecture, urban design, community participation and regeneration. This collaboration does not necessarily have to result in a ‘work of art’. Artists working alongside other professionals and designers can contribute their conceptual and practical skills to the creation of buildings, other structures and public spaces. Public art can also have a part to play in the regeneration of communities. It can involve a process that encourages local people to embrace new ideas and skills, develop a sense of ownership and to engage in decisions about their locality. This applies in particular with young people and work with schools can be very fruitful. Public art can help to:

  • Renew and transform urban and rural areas, both developed and regenerating;
  • Restore the environmental deficit through regenerating areas of dereliction and by investing in the highest
  • quality environmental assets;
  • Project a positive image, reinforcing strong regional brands and countering negative stereotypes;
  • Promote high standards of design, landscaping and architecture by creating or adding to distinctive public
  • spaces, environments and buildings;
  • Encourage further investment, tourism and employment;
  • Promote civic pride through involvement and ownership.


Funding for public art can come from a variety of sources. To maximise these funding options, and more importantly to keep abreast of good practice, projects should be aware of precedents, priorities and policy from a number of sources. These should normally include the Arts Council England and UK public art think-tank Ixia as a first port of call. Also important are the relevant guidelines of CABE and the various Regional Development Agencies (Regional Economic Strategy and Cultural Strategy primarily), as well as all relevant sub-regional or local Public Art Strategies and specialist Supplementary Planning Documents – where they exist.

As such, many Urban Regeneration Companies and local authorities now regularly fund public art as a small part of their overall regeneration programmes. In addition, many local authorities also negotiate with private sector developers over their contributions to funding for public art through either Section 106 negotiation or a formally adopted ‘Percent for Art’ strategy

A wide variety of foundations and trusts also fund public art, each having their own specialist priorities and funding criteria. Increasingly, a number of enlightened developers are also choosing to commission public art, having realised that it can add immense value to projects, in the same way that good design does.

Commissioning Criteria

In order to be considered good quality and to achieve funding support, public art projects should demonstrate that:

  • The proposed work is of the highest artistic quality; it may also be innovative, striking, challenging or ambitious in its vision;
  • The project directly or indirectly supports and develops the very best emerging artistic talent and follows good commissioning practice;
  • The project is viable, both technically and financially, and the applicant has the ability to develop, manage and sustain the project;
  • There is public benefit for the community; for example through improvement to the environment, the image of an area or the attraction of visitors or investors;
  • Appropriate arrangements are in place for consultation and/or engagement with the local community and other stakeholders;
  • The work is suitably sensitive and appropriate to its location and adds to its Sense of Place – as well as the local community Quality of Life;
  • The immediate local environment and infrastructure is able to absorb any additional visitors;
  • Public art works are integrated into a broad design strategy which tackles the whole environment of an area and considers all stakeholders.


To achieve delivery whilst maintaining good practice, public art clearly needs to be considered from the outset of any development, scheme or project and needs collaboration with highly specialised artists and/or arts consultants. To illustrate this, and by way of conclusion, listed below are some abridged extracts taken directly from the website of Ixia, the UK public art think-tank:

“The process of commissioning public art is complex. By necessity it involves a number of partners and so issues of collaboration are at the centre of many public art commissions. As a consequence the process can be protracted and challenging. The commitment and resources required on the part of all creative partners and project facilitators are often under-estimated …..”

“…… Because of the nature of the practice an active dialogue with collaborating professions is essential. Policymakers and professional bodies engaged primarily with other design professions need to be aware and engaged with current debate around public art practice.”

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