Heerlen (NL) is marked by a number of degenerated areas due to the collapse of the mining industry in the Limburg region. To foster social and urban regeneration in these areas the municipality uses community art as a tool to engage with communities and improve the image of depressed neighbourhoods. By capturing the potentials of a bottom-up mural art movement being developed in Heerlen over the last few years, the city facilitates its further development. All murals have been created through community engagement, in which citizens, entrepreneurs and artists co-created and took co-ownership in the works. This builds long-lasting and reciprocal social engagement. Moreover, the movement contributes to Heerlen’s positive city image both inside and outside: The city is now able to attract more and more visitors.
Heerlen Murals is a community art form that is based on the creation of mural artworks in the city through community involvement to counter social and urban degradation. Heerlen Murals’ success is in line with and based on the spreading urban trend of place making. People care about public places they use when they are emotionally connected to them, and this can contribute to sustainable use of public spaces. Community art, especially murals, is a strong and effective tool to inject life into abandoned public spaces. Artists create the murals on raw walls and derelict buildings selected with their owners. The murals reflect on local contexts of people, neighbourhoods and the city’s history. Murals are created in cooperation with citizens, local businesses and schools, as well as community organisations through a process of co-creation. By doing so, the local identity is increased, leading to an improved sense of well-being. The mural street art movement nurtured by the city of Heerlen serves as a spark for additional activities such as workshops, community events, as well as projects about green development. Moreover, the Street Art Foundation, which is an important link between mural arts and urban redevelopment, develops mural walking routes for tourist. By attracting tourists and increasing local attractiveness, Heerlen is also able to increase its economic performance.
It is well known that when culture is used for urban development, social issues are being touched upon automatically, as culture makes dynamic use of the internal energies of communities that automatically evokes social dialogues and linkages. Boosting creativity in a city can lead to leapfrogging in terms of social and economic development in small and mid-size towns. As each mural is created following a bottom-up initiative and through a co-creation process, by bringing local entrepreneurs, citizens, schools and community organisations together to co-create, the Heerlen Murals ultimately aim to create stronger local communities. By doing so they contribute to the social integration. Underlined by various bottom-up spin-offs, such as local events and workshops, community building is indeed characterised by sustainability. By increasing the attractiveness and liveability of neighbourhoods, Heerlen Murals have a positive influence on businesses as well. Visitors are attracted by the development of mural walking tours that increase the potentials of the tourism industry. Murals are also used in the process of redesigning public spaces and add to their economic value by attracting new businesses. Environmental integration is backed by experiments with the re-use of materials and the creation of murals that use green patches, this leads to an increased environmental consciousness.
All murals are created through local participation. Several examples can be mentioned: citizens and school children provide city stories and names to the murals, local businesses provide financial contributions. Several housing corporations and businesses started to provide space for murals on their properties and financially support the creation of these murals, as well as cooperating with their tenants and the Street Art Foundation. Moreover, the national trade union FNV donated a mural dedicated to the mining history of the city, inviting former miners to related ceremonies to build cohesion between citizens and Heerlen’s history. A number of murals have been realised along with the refurbishment of public areas to increase livability. The Street Art Foundation cooperates closely with the Tourist Information Centre in the creation of mural walking routes and maps for visitors. A number of murals have been realised through community financing. The cardiology department at the local hospital worked on the creation of a mural in the hospital, with the aim of strengthening its connection with the city. Weller, a local housing corporation, donated one of its properties to create an urban gallery of mural. For the mural “Heerlen Herlon”, an initiative by several creative entrepreneurs, a separate crowd-funding campaign has raised 13 000 euros in a few weeks’ time.
The Heerlen Murals project has led to the development of a total number of 67 artworks spread out over Heerlen, all co-created by artists, local citizens and businesses. It has also led to a significant increase in public and private engagement in Heerlen, as well as an increased sense of well-being.
Moreover, Heerlen Murals clearly increased the attractiveness and image of the city. In 2016, the city won the Dutch Street Art Award, confirming it the “mural capital” of the Netherlands, creating the image of an innovative cultural city also on international level, known for its street art scene. Therefore, the city is developing its reputation as an internationally recognised laboratory for the development of a street art genre.
Also, the Parkstad Region won the Tourist Tomorrow Award in 2016, in which Heerlen Murals played an important part. These all result in an increase of visitors coming to Heerlen. Based on estimates of the Tourist Information Centre in Heerlen, it amounts to a few thousand more visitors in 2016 compared to 2013.
Public figures from the liveability statistics provided by ABF research for the city of Heerlen for 2012-2014 show that the local perception of the physical surroundings in Heerlen turned more positive in the majority of the city’s districts. Although there are no later statistics available, it shows a sign of an increased positive perception of liveability in the city. Heerlen Murals contributed to the process.
Many European cities have recently started mural-painting activities (e.g. Belgrade, Kaunas, Gdansk, Antwerp, Ostend, Bristol, Malmo, Reykjavik, Budapest, Waterford). One of the most important motivations of these cities is to make neighbourhoods more attractive. Many of these cities also deal with problems of deprivation in neighbourhoods often characterised by high-rise apartment blocks, or open spaces and raw walls in between historical buildings. However, to connect and engage local communities, to inject life into depressed neighbourhoods and to foster social and urban renewal, so to maximise the potential impact community art-based mural paintings can generate is often missing. Also, in the majority of cases, a clear city-wide effort to facilitate the process is missing. Moreover, Heerlen is engaging with other cities in the Euregio, such as Liège. These cities are highly interested in the manner by which Heerlen was able to rapidly use street art to formulate answers to issues of social and urban deprivation. It is also worth mentioning that hundreds of cities in former Communist countries are painting high-rise blocks in the frame of isolating projects, but without any concepts behind colouring and targeting community engagement. This could create great interest for Heerlen’s good practice.