When Cities Become Science, Where Does Art Fit In? : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture As big data pushes us toward a full-blown quantitative science of cities, a unique project in Rochester, New York, has commentator Adam Frank appreciating the role of public art in urban living.

When Cities Become Science, Where Does Art Fit In?

"Flower Power" by Icy and Sot on the back wall of Rochester's Good Luck restaurant. Mark Deff Photography/Courtesy of WALL\THERAPY hide caption

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Mark Deff Photography/Courtesy of WALL\THERAPY

"Flower Power" by Icy and Sot on the back wall of Rochester's Good Luck restaurant.

Mark Deff Photography/Courtesy of WALL\THERAPY

The race has started. It's going to be run fast and hard and it won't be over for a while. It's a race whose winner doesn't matter as long as someone, somewhere makes it to the finish line.

The race I'm talking about is the push to create a new science of cities that is as quantitative and predictive as possible. It will be a science that tells us how cities grow and why they fail. It will allow us to see the factors that make some neighborhoods healthy while others leave their inhabitants stuck in poverty. It will tell us how energy and information flow through the city like blood through a complex organism. And, most importantly for a climate-changed world where 70 percent of the population will live in urban areas by 2050, it will show us how cities can become more efficient, sustainable and resilient.

One can argue that the current race began in the 1990s and early 2000s when researchers such as Juval Portugali began adapting something called complexity theory to the study of cities. Complexity theory is a field which grew from the study of chaos, fractals and other new mathematical terrain three decades ago. More recently, the advent of big data and network theory have given researchers entirely new tools to take the study of cities forward. Now newly available, massive data sets are really getting the city science revolution moving as high-resolution records of everything from traffic to household health are opened up for exploration.

But, with all this push to quantize and characterize, there are dangers. Cities clearly are more than a new kind of physics problem. They are also creations of the human imagination and, as such, they live or die by the quality of the imagination we bring to them.

Thats why no discussion of the health of cities can be complete without thinking about the role of art — public art.

This week continues the fourth year of a remarkable experiment in public art right here in my adopted hometown of Rochester, New York. Called WALL\THERAPY, it's a week-long celebration of street art and its power to transform urban spaces. Co-curator Erich Lehman, of Rochester's 1975 gallery, explained it to me this way:

"Each year we bring in street and graffiti artists from around the world, the country and the city. Using outdoor wall space donated by the owners of private buildings, the artists are given the opportunity to create murals that literally change the face of neighborhoods."

Dr. Ian Wilson, a radiologist at the the University of Rochester's Strong Medical Center, is the other founder and co-curator of WALL\THERAPY. He sees the event in personal terms:

"It's all about the signal and noise. I grew up in Brooklyn and most of the kids I knew who were heading for trouble had no vision of what was valuable in life, including themselves. Everyday they were getting pounded with information from the city around them. Posters, billboards, you name it. But it was all just noise in terms of making a difference in their lives. When I started this project, I wanted to find a way to get a signal to them that would stand above the noise."

That first WALL\THERAPY project was BELIEVE. It was a collaboration between eight aerosol artists working on large-scale murals with the word BELIEVE as the theme.

"Just getting that kind of collaboration between artists was novel in itself," Wilson told me. The results were beautiful, striking and thought provoking — everything street art and public art should be.

Since then WALL\THERAPY has added more than 80 murals to the city, in locations ranging from corner bodegas to Rochester's famous 100-year-old public market. In the process it's put Rochester on the map for arts innovation. Last year Jaime Rojo and Steven Harrington of Brooklyn Street Art dedicated a full week of their Huffington Post blog to the event.

For radiologist Wilson, the links between public art and the public interest run deep. Wilson founded WALL\THERAPY with a sister project called IMPACT!, which stands for "IMProving Access to Care by Teleradiology." That project's goal is getting modern diagnostic imaging sites into developing countries. Wilson sees the connection between the projects this way:

"The connection between art and the medical philanthropy is imagery. Street murals enhance life. Medical X-ray imagery preserves it."

For Wilson these kinds of connections matter. As a doctor he has a strong interest in the way technologies affect the human dimension of medical care. He brings the same focus to his thinking about cities.

"These murals build connections between parts of the city that can get totally separated. Now we have folks coming from suburbs, or even rural areas, to see these murals in parts of the city they may never have visited before."

The images are intended to generate new connections across Rochester's many communities. Last year the German artist Case painted a mural of Martin Luther King Jr. right in the center of the Park Avenue area, which tends toward a more upscale dinner crowd. Wilson, sees the connection:

"The story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one which applies to the entire nation, not just one group of people."

It's fitting that Wilson is a doctor who works with high-end digital medical technology. It is, after all, the science emerging from our new digital capacities that offers us an entirely new way of looking at how cities function.

WALL\THERAPY reminds us that — if the goal of a digital city science is to make our cities better places to live — we should never lose sight of the inspiration that only public art in in public spaces can provide.

You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4