Art for our sake

Courtesy of Maddy McBirney
Los Altos has contracted for a Public Art Master Plan that could include interactive pieces like “Conversation Peace” in downtown Los Altos.

The city of Los Altos has contracted with Designing Local, an Ohio-based planning firm, to develop a Public Art Master Plan for the community.

The planners, led by Amanda Golden, signed a $50,000 contract to draft a document that envisions a long-term strategy to make Los Altos more beautiful and more unique.

“We know that public art has the power to be transformative,” Golden said. “It can help set a city apart and be that differentiator.”

The planning has already begun.

Los Altos residents, employees and business owners can participate in an online survey at

“For the next six to eight months, we are going to be in the community asking people what they would like to see, where they’d like to see it, how much do they want to see and what funding they have,” Golden said. “We’ll create a document that the city will adopt and we’ll help guide them through the public art strategies for the future.”

Designing Local has spearheaded similar master plans for Emeryville and San Luis Obispo in recent years. The plans are designed to highlight the idiosyncrasies of each city. In urban Emeryville, Designing Local wrote, “every street, bridge, bike rack, manhole cover and light pole provides an opportunity to integrate art into the landscape.”

In beachside San Luis Obispo, the firm emphasized that “public art is more than just statues in public locations.”

Designing Local is currently collaborating with the city of Roswell, Ga. – an affluent suburb of Atlanta – to create a Public Art Master Plan.

“Roswell is very similar (to Los Altos) in that they are one of the first suburbs of Atlanta and have gone through extreme measures to maintain a family feel,” Golden said. “We did a Public Art Master Plan for them that focused on ways to fund public art in that city.”

Celebrating uniqueness

Golden visited Los Altos in March and plans to come more often this summer.

“I’m very impressed with how beautiful it is and how well-kept it is,” she said. “The houses do a lot to show how much people care about the community.”

Golden said the first thing Designing Local will do is “try and get the essence of the place.”

“Los Altos is different from every other community because it has these unique aspects and unique people who have their visions for what the community should be,” she said. “We ask the community to share with us who they feel they are, who they want to be and who they were historically. We take all of that and try to distill the essence of that – the essence of Los Altos.”

Los Altos’ Public Arts Commission has been working with Designing Local on the distillation process.

“Our goal is to educate people on what public art is and how it can create placemaking,” said Commissioner Maddy McBirney. “If you work with the community and give them what they want, you can create a place.”

McBirney cited two very different places as prime venues for public art: Veterans Community Plaza at Main and State streets, and the San Antonio Road and El Camino Real crossroads at the north edge of town. She wants to raise awareness of Los Altos and for people to experience the art even if they do not go downtown.

“Public art is accessible to everyone and anyone,” she said. “It creates a conversation. People will come to the city just to see public art if it’s iconic.”

Golden echoed McBirney’s thoughts on the conversation-making and placemaking potential of public art.

“We are thinking about ways to energize and create public space through art,” Golden said. “High-quality art is a driver for people to come and visit and experience, for people to take a step back.”

Part of a larger vision

In addition to the online survey, Designing Local is scheduled to host a series of workshops the week of May 22, with more details to come. As part of the week, the organization is planning a conference, “smART Planning: A Conversation on Art, Place and Innovation,” 6 p.m. May 24 at the Los Altos Youth Center.

Golden said she hopes that some parts of the Public Arts Master Plan will complement the ongoing Downtown Vision project. A Downtown Vision kick-off event is scheduled 5-7 p.m. Tuesday at Veterans Community Plaza.

Jon Maginot, Los Altos’ assistant to the city manager, is working with Designing Local and sees the Public Art Master Plan as a way to formulate a long-term strategy for the city.

“A lot of the things the city does in terms of public art have been on an ad hoc basis,” he said. “This is a chance to really get a vision and get a sense of what we want the public art program to look like and what we want it to be in the future.”

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