In Halle, a collective of urban planners, teachers, artists, students, and volunteers painted a whole district with street art and graffiti, demonstrating that these techniques can lead to positive social, cultural, and economic impact in shrinking and neglected areas.
Halle (Saale) is located in East Germany and was affected by an intense outflux of inhabitants moving to cities in West Germany after the Reunification in 1989. One third of the population left and the number of the cities inhabitants continuously shrunk from 320,000 to 230,000 in the following 20 years.
Many architectural and social problems occurred as a consequence of this massive degrowth, including unused infrastructure, abandoned houses, unemployment, and a lack of investment. At the same time, graffiti caused a great deal of trouble in Halle: illegal street art and graffiti were so prevalent that special task forces were involved to stop them; public associations were formed against this form of art.
This underlines that the critical creative potential of these art forms was never acknowledged, even though it was highly recognisable.
Problems into Potentials
To turn two apparent problems – graffiti activity and abandoned properties – into potential, the young collective chose the district of Freiimfelde, in the east of Halle. Freiimfelde is located right next to the main train station, but segregated from the rest of the inner city by a huge railway corridor.
The former industrial district was heavily shaped by the emigration of industries and population. Around 50 per cent of the houses were empty in 2011, making it Germany’s emptiest district. Roads and buildings were in disastrous shape, public services were poorly available, and the percentage of poor families high compared to other districts – the neighbourhood had been neglected and forgotten for years, making it an interesting place to experiment with urban art’s potential to achieve social and spatial improvement.
The collective called their project “Freiraumgalerie” (Open Space Gallery). They wanted to make all of Freiimfelde’s open spaces available to everyone to use and paint them, signalising potentials and qualities of unused urban fabric. Freiimfelde’s vacancies were understood as a canvas both reflecting urban creativity and triggering awareness and respect for formerly unseen development potentials.
All You Can Paint
Once the place was chosen, Freiraumgalerie decided for festivals as the proper format for painting the district. The All You Can Paint – Urban Art Festival took place three times from 2012 to 2014. Street artist and graffiti artists were invited to stay in the district and paint huge houses or walls. The artists painted murals for free and were in turn free to paint what they wanted – a basic rule of All You Can Paint. While material costs were funded by sociocultural and artistic foundations, all work was done by volunteers.
There were workshops for inhabitants of Freiimfelde, especially children and young people, where they learned about street art and graffiti techniques. These workshops were aimed at motivating participants to actively take part in colouring the forgotten district and to take ownership and responsibility for their living environment.
One of the main goals of the festivals was to establish so-called Hall of Fames: walls that are legal for everyone to paint on, no matter their skills. Through these walls, the open gallery in the streets changes constantly and is self-maintained, even after the festivals ended. Legal walls like these are an element for unconditional creative participation.
The festivals were accompanied by cultural events which used the colourful urban appearance as a stage for their programmes: theatre performances, poetry slams, skating events, and street soccer tournaments as well as concerts and parties. Streets were awash with colour and crowded with people talking, painting, and exploring.
From Creative Experiment to Professional Strategy
After three years, more than 10,000 square meters of wall in Freiimfelde were painted. After strictly painting empty houses in the beginning, more and more landlords of “active” buildings gave their facades for paintings upon seeing the first results.
Freiimfelde changed its identity and image; the murals became the strongest image factor for the neighbourhood. Even Halle-born inhabitants, who had never set foot into the districts before, came to Freiimfelde for the first time in their lives to explore the art. Also, investment took place. 80 per cent of the empty houses were renovated and prices for property increased a lot. Prices for rent, however, remained relatively stable.
At first, the municipal government was unsure how to deal with the process. However, having no alternatives and no concepts to offer for Freiimfelde themselves, they tolerated the creative approach for Freiimfelde. Upon noticing its positive impact, they supported the creative commitment – although not financially.
In 2014, the mayor wanted a strategy for the further development of Freiimfelde: while the district had attracted a lot of public attention, it still had no proper long-term perspectives regarding improvement of infrastructure and residents’ livelihoods. That was when the city’s involvement changed from passive to active.
The planning department decided to try an innovative approach: since residents were responsible for the positive impulse and activities, aiming to change their urban environment, it should be them to plan and formalise the future of Freiimfelde. Therefore, a citizen-based development concept was suggested for Freiimfelde, and the Freiraumgalerie team was designated to be in charge of organising, designing, and documenting the process.
Over two years, a range of new and established methods were applied in order to involve as many inhabitants as possible in the development of their future district. Team Freiraumgalerie moderated, motivated, investigated, and documented the whole process, from the first informal meetings to the final result.
In autumn 2017, the “Bürgerschaftliches Quartierskonzept Freiimfelde” (citizen-based development concept Freiimfelde) was approved by the city council. The concept formalised approaches to improve social, environmental, cultural, and educational standards. It is a great example of how to develop strategies that combine civic commitment with public forces and little money.
Since 2019, Freiraumgalerie has not been active in Freiimfelde anymore, yet they continue to use urban art as an instrument to trigger development in other districts with different backgrounds. Over the years, their approach has grown from a temporary experiment to a professional strategy with sustainable aspiration.
Eight Things to Learn from Freiimfelde
- Abandoned and unused urban fabric can be a key driver for (sometimes informal) urban creativity.
- A high number of illegal graffiti may appear as a problem, but is also a strong indicator for creative inhabitants reclaiming urban space.
- Painting a public wall always creates attention and communication. If planners want to learn more about a district by talking to its residents, this is going to be the door opener.
- Painting urban environment has to happen with the community. Only this way can the murals be kept alive and connect the art to the stories and places of the neighbourhood.
- Legal walls to paint for anyone anytime with their own material is a self-sustained tool to release urban creativity.
- Wall paintings and urban art festivals can be a tool for improving the image and identity of an area.
- Painting the neighbourhood attracts people, but also investment. Urban art activities increase the potential of gentrification. This is when social and economic impact through art gets its turning-point.
- Urban art can be used as an instrument to find perspectives for an area and fill planning gaps temporarily