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The Urban Forest Project: Companies Fund Public Art, Which Funds Non-Profits

A unique public art project is a model for building and maintaining positive and sustainable partnerships between businesses, creatives, and government agencies.

Designers Accord

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New York-based marketing and branding agency Worldstudio has always made it a point to work with clients and causes that promote social and environmental good. In 2006, the firm’s longtime client Times Square Alliance (TSA) came to partner Mark Randall with an interesting request: For the first time ever, the city was allowing banners on lightposts in Times Square to be turned over to artists. Tim Tompkins, president of TSA, asked Worldstudio to create a unique public art experience for the high-traffic streets. The result, the Urban Forest Project, is a popular awareness campaign that has spread to several cities, connecting corporate sponsors with local causes and engaging artists with their city government.

urban forest

A RECYCLED IDEA
Partnering with the local chapter of AIGA and tapping artists and designers to use the form or metaphor for a tree, Worldstudio selected 185 banners with messages of sustainability, ecology, and the environment–creating a stunning instant landmark with a positive message. But there were two additional mandates dictated by Worldstudio for the project: 1) that it create no waste, and, 2) that somehow financial support would go back to the arts. So once the banners finished their run, they were recycled into tote bags by handbag company Jack Spade. These tote bags were then sold online, and all proceeds were donated to the scholarship and mentoring program of AIGA New York, working with kids to expose them to the arts.

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Devising a chain-of-events like that for a high-level client is not at all unusual for Worldstudio. But creating a very sustainable, creative campaign is sometimes difficult for a big-picture executive team to dream up, says Andréa Pellegrino, who joined Worldstudio as a partner in 2008. By matching Times Square Alliance’s funding with AIGA’s civic outreach, they were able to create a revenue- and awareness-generating model for all parties involved, says Pellegrino. “Our common interest is in creating ownable projects
and programs for our clients that demonstrate their corporate social responsibility platforms and make
tangible positive change in the communities they serve.”

HIGH VISIBILITY MESSAGE
Bringing the sustainability message to a place like Times Square seems a bit counterintuitive (even though TSA points out that they embarked upon green infrastructure initiatives early on). But the flashy, entertainment-driven center was just the place for grabbing the public’s attention. Widespread attention in the media–everywhere from The New York Times to ABC News–proved Worldstudio’s hunch was right on. Suddenly Worldstudio was behind a successful high-profile project that could be adapted for any city.

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urban forest

Shortly afterward, similar projects were launched by designers in Denver, Baltimore, and Portland, where Worldstudio allowed the Urban Forest name to be used and passed along advice to help guide the process. But Worldstudio realized that there was real value–for both the Urban Forest brand and for Worldstudio–when they were actively involved in the negotiations between design, city, and corporate entities. Randall and Pellegrino were soon approached by the city forester in Albuquerque, who was interested in implementing the project
to educate the public about the city’s environmental initiative, Albuquerque Green, with proceeds going to the non-profit, Tree New Mexico. They worked closely with the city and on October 1st, the Urban Forest launched in New Mexico.

WORKING WITHIN CONSTRAINTS
Although Worldstudio tries to use environmentally friendly practices in all locations, they’re still working with one of the most dubious materials around: vinyl, prized for its durability, yet shamed for its toxicity. The bags also must be produced overseas and shipped back to the U.S. to be sold. Working within long-established city regulations has also become a drawback, as Worldstudio has found themselves at the mercy of stringent city vendor regulations, forcing them to use contracted labor or materials–even if they’re not the most sustainable choice.

urban forest

To Pellegrino, it’s a chance to potentially help a large company improve their practices. “We’re becoming better stewards,” she says. “We hope to play in the sandbox with companies who want to make lasting, positive change.” Their concern have led to discussions with printers about their methods and enquiries about new materials that can be used in place of vinyl.

urban forest

CORPORATE CONNECTIONS
Bringing the Urban Forest to Albuquerque had another unexpected breakthrough. Worldstudio found a local partner in Whole Foods, which agreed to not only financially sponsor the project but to sell the tote bags in local stores for added exposure. This partnership might see itself working its way up the chain into a national model that could be win-win for both the designers and the causes selected by each Urban Forest Project. Projects are currently under way in both San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Toledo.

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The Urban Forest Project unifies corporations with city
governments, non-profits, students, the creative community and the general public to help them demonstrate their commitment to the community. But there’s another very important element of the project. That’s about teaching designers and artists about the value and impact of their actions–and how, when paired with the right sponsorship plan, their work can reach far beyond their own circles. Even for Worldstudio itself, the Urban Forest Project has proved to be a sustainable business model, setting a good example for other designers embarking on similar efforts: The team asks for a small amount of seed money from the community partner to cover their time and then secures corporate sponsorship to underwrite the project.

[New York photos by Mark Dye Photography]

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About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato.

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