top of page
  • Writer's pictureChris Choa


Strategies for Cultural Programming

We love art, and we understand that cultural programming is generally valuable. But can cultural programming create specific outcomes in cities? If so, what aspects of urban art can we measure in order achieve desired outcomes? And are there emerging partnerships and tools that can help us measure and deliver the outcomes?

To help answer some of these questions, I recently moderated an extraordinary session of the Urban Land Institute/Urban Art Forum that explored some of these questions.

The Urban Art Forum (UAF) examines the interactions of urban art in the city – and in particular the reciprocal benefits that the city and urban art bring to each other. As part of the ULI’s ongoing effort to produce a Best-Practice Guide for commissioning urban art, the UAF committee, hosted by UAF Chair Hala El Akl, assembled 30 cultural leaders, drawn from a broad range of arts, real-estate, government, and consultancy sectors to debate and define how an outcome-based approach can best deliver urban value.

We initially organised ourselves into two groups, led by Fabienne Nicholas/Head of Consultancy at the Contemporary Art Society, and Eime Tobari/Director of Urban Analytics at AECOM. We then came back together to share and synthesise our discussions.

Some of the workshop insights:


  • Urban art is valuable, but it is not an end in itself; the ultimate objective is engagement with communities.

  • Community engagement often comes through the definition, creation, permitting, and curation of cultural projects.

  • Good urban art projects are authentic; they create shared memories and express the qualities of their place. They allow participants to experience something bigger than themselves.

  • Successful cultural programming attracts diverse groups to interact with each other. While some programs appeal to a very wide range of audiences, sometimes the most effective initiatives focus on smaller, more defined groups.


  • As in virtually all urban activities, there are undeniable commercial aspects to most art, which for many cultural reasons are not openly discussed. Until these aspects are acknowledged, it is difficult to define and measure outcomes related to commercial value.

  • Outcome measurement should track both individual activities around the program as well as socio-economic impacts to surrounding assets.

  • We can always measure quantitative aspects like footfall, new visits, and increases in neighbourhood revenues. Through social media, and transport data, communications infrastructure, we can also begin to track participation by demographic groups, and more qualitative engagement, including emotional sentiments, and even composite aspects like ‘happiness’.

  • We can evolve cultural indexes for places. For example: concentration density of cultural programming, or the ratio of public vs. private investment in cultural assets.

  • Measuring progress in cultural contexts can help developers demonstrate their contributions to social and public outcomes.

  • As in other forms of social impact investment, it is possible to track and measure the progressive impacts to communities from a ‘no-art’ baseline.

  • Like urban transport, the cost and performance of urban art programs can be measured not on an isolated basis but in ways that recognise broader territorial value, for example the ability to regenerate new sites, to release land for a wider range of uses.

  • Urban art may evolve to become a normative public-access program like a health care plan or public education. Cultural inclusivity and engagement innovation will become measurable aspects of other social activities.


  • Achieving cultural outcomes will become a branch of emerging digital masterplanning, and will increasingly rely on non-cultural technology platforms like dating and polling engines, telecom companies, transport authorities, and other groups that aggregate meta-data.

  • Stakeholders for public art programs extend beyond the traditional artist/commissioning agency relationship to include local government, community groups, business-improvement-districts (BIDs), university populations, transport authorities, economic development agencies, and corporate brands.

  • Culturally-minded real-estate developers tend to rely on art consultants and other 3rd-party intermediaries to identity artists; they are rarely approach artists directly, or are approached directly by artists. How can these two groups better understand each other? This suggests an area that is ripe for disruption.

Ultimately, the workshop session recognised that urban art creates shared experience and knowledge as well as social and commercial value. The definition of ‘culture’ is broadening beyond imposed norms to include any range of meaningful experiences that define urban identity. In many respects, urban art programs are becoming an emerging urban asset class; they are co-evolving with other next-generation urban asset classes like retail, hospitality, and commercial office – they increasingly express social and community characteristics.

Urban art asks us what we want to prove and forces us to examine what we value in our culture. It validates and recognises the social groups that invest and participate in it.

Christopher Choa - ULI/Europe Governing Trustee


urban strategy, worldwide

economic development


program management

bottom of page