By Ravi Sarpatwari


Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) has received a one-year grant from the Rhode Island Foundation to support an initiative that will develop ongoing, connected, and sustainable ways that RISD – as a principal organizer and creative catalyst – can work in the City of Providence through its public parks and spaces and its wealth of organizations in common cause to create and sustain a vibrant, vital, and healthy living environment. The proposed project will position Providence as a national incubator and replicable model of how innovative community-based art and design interventions can transform cities into dynamic and effective sites for improved public health.

Over the next year, RISD proposes to identify ways in which it can, as a leading college of art and design, contribute to public health initiatives throughout Providence. Building on the intellectual, cultural, and physical assets of Providence and working collaboratively with local organizations and agencies, we will use the creative breadth and depth of RISD artists, designers, and museum art educators to develop interventions across the city. These pilot projects will strategically use Providence’s neighborhood public spaces to encourage and support healthy behavior and to enhance community health advocacy and assets. The initiative will be guided by our conviction that the vitality, diversity, and agility of the arts can promote and facilitate healthy living throughout the city’s many distinctive districts.


RISD’s Strategic Plan (2012-17) places the highest priority on nurturing critical making, thinking, and innovation through immersive, disciplinary learning and engagement in the practice of art and design. RISD specifically includes healthcare as an area in which art and design can make meaningful contributions through core competencies of critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, collaboration, and public engagement and through increased emphasis on interdisciplinary study and collaborative research.

Supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in March 2011 RISD organized “Make It Better: A Symposium on Art, Design, and the Future of Healthcare” which brought together a diverse group of artists, designers, public health leaders, healthcare providers, entrepreneurs, and innovators for presentations and discussion on the intersection of art, design, and health. RISD faculty and students have frequently worked on wellness and health issues in Providence and other sites for several years, but the work has not been documented, inventoried, evaluated, and organized as a foundation for future work. The symposium was a galvanizing and expansive convening that has brought focus to RISD’s capacity and has served as a catalyst to inspire and guide current and future work.

Key findings from the Symposium that have shaped the development of this project and will guide RISD’s work going forward include:

  • changing preconceptions of artists and designers and reframing their role in health and healthcare innovation.
  • RISD faculty and students have introduced health challenges into our curriculum and demonstrated the benefits of art and design education to problem solving in health and healthcare.
  • health is more than an absence of disease: all individuals, including consumers, healthcare providers, researchers, artists, and designers can participate in public health.
  • making the healthy choice the desirable choice can promote health behavior.
  • the built environment can support healthy behaviors, impact health outcomes, and encourage engagement and participation.
  • interdisciplinary research collaborations between artists, designers, and health scientists promote health innovation and advance research.
  • art inspires community-based participatory models of health activism.

Since the “Make It Better” Symposium, RISD has developed a vision for utilizing Providence’s extensive network of public spaces to mobilize the City as a healthy community network.

Goals and Objectives

The overarching long-term goal of the project is to address living behaviors upstream before they become health care issues downstream. The project will explore innovative ways of using art and design and public spaces to promote health.

The requested grant will support the following objectives toward the long-term goals:

  • Assessment of current conditions in order to identify sites and opportunities to connect artists and designers with health experts, policy-makers, and community leaders.
  • Development and launch of a virtual “healthy community network” – an interactive map that integrates and overlays information about demographics and health data; available health related resources; and an inventory of current health projects in order to identify critical gaps, prioritize actions, communicate our initiative and gauge impact. The map will be available on the RISD website.
  • Roster of internal stakeholders (RISD faculty and students) interested in or already working on public health issues.
  • Roster of key external partners from across sectors (government, health, academic, cultural, corporate, creative) to create a network that advocates for and advances healthy activities and communities throughout the city.
  • Formation of an Advisory Committee, composed of internal stakeholders and external partners, to guide decisions between meetings.
  • Identification of platforms from Providence’s diverse palette of 80+ public parks and other public sites that will serve as an inter-nodal organizing network to develop, share, and distribute health incentives and wellness initiatives.
  • Facilitation of artists and designers working with those in the health field to develop the skills and knowledge needed to address health concerns that have been identified as the most pressing for the coming decades.
  • Support of 2-3 pilot interventions incorporating art and design that promote, encourage, and facilitate behavior that will lead to better health outcomes.
  • Development (with partners and stakeholders) of a prioritized plan (2014-17) of actions, interventions, and programs to make Providence a national exemplar of a dynamically arts engaged healthy city.
  • Positioning of RISD to develop the resources to sustain its efforts to create a vibrant urban environment that supports public health and wellness in Providence.

Reposted from RISD Academic Affairs