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Creative placemaking 101 for community developers

Creative placemaking has been getting a lot of attention lately. Community developers may be wondering what’s this thing all about? Is it the latest funding trend? Should you jump on the bandwagon and integrate artists into your initiatives? Does that mural project in your neighborhood count? 

Anne Gadwa Nicodemus

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In 2010, I had the privilege of researching creative placemaking for a white paper that provided initial framing for the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, a leadership initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). That experience has informed how I think creative placemaking works best.

To break it down, creative placemaking is a relatively new term for work that’s been organically happening in neighborhoods, towns and cities all across the country for decades. Within the last few years, it’s received new momentum in terms of funding and policy coordination.

In under three years, ArtPlace—an unprecedented consortium of foundations with government agencies serving as strategic advisors—and the National Endowment for the Arts have collectively invested more than $61.5 million in creative placemaking initiatives all across the country, and other funders, notably The Kresge Foundation, have placed a new emphasis on creative placemaking in their grantmaking. Both HUD and the Department of Education have revised funding guidelines to encourage arts-strategies as part of the Choice and Promise neighborhood programs.

The NEA, ArtPlace and Kresge hope that creative placemaking will catalyze a paradigm shift within the field of community development. The degree to which they succeed depends, in part, on you.

So what is creative placemaking? Here is the definition that Ann Markusen and I developed, which the NEA still uses:

"In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, nonprofit and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire and be inspired."

Ours is not the only definition. Different funders and practitioners employ at least eight different definitions. I recently wrote about how creative placemaking is a “fuzzy concept”—an idea which means different things to different people but flourishes precisely because of that imprecision.

For me, the core concepts are a useful place to start an intentional and strategic discussion about what creative placemaking is and what that means for community developers. In the white paper that Ann Markusen and I co-authored, our definition of creative placemaking is about three things:

  1. Strategic action by cross-sector partners
  2. A place-based orientation
  3. A core of arts and cultural activities
"We emphasize economic, physical, social and arts-related intrinsic impacts—'celebrate, inspire and be inspired.'"

The second part of our definition speaks to creative placemaking’s outcomes. We emphasize economic, physical, social and arts-related intrinsic impacts—“celebrate, inspire and be inspired.” Our frame helps transcends narrow economic impact or art-for-art’s sake justifications that have previously dominated and divided arts advocacy camps.

Strategic Action By Cross-Sector Partners

A cross-sector orientation helps underscore why creative placemaking has garnered an unprecedented level of policy take-up and funding momentum in such a short amount of time. Diverse stakeholders find the sweet spot of shared value and open up new possibilities for using arts and culture both as a means and an end for community and economic development.

For instance, because the NEA’s Our Town grant application requires collaboration between an art or cultural organization and a government entity, just applying catalyzes conversations between artists, arts organization leaders, elected officials, planners, and community developers. They’re thinking in new ways about the role of arts and culture in civic life and public space.

In the Public Art Program in Phoenix, Ariz., (one of 14 diverse case studies we included in the white paper), artists are involved in the earliest possible design stages of public infrastructure projects. They have a peer-to-peer relationship with engineers, architects, urban planners and city staff.

Edward Lebow, the public art program director for the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture, explains that having artists so deeply involved allows room for the impertinent questions to be asked and to move beyond using public art as a band–aid for urban spaces.

In Phoenix, a major highway bridge has incorporated Our Shared Environment, an artwork by Marilyn Zwak.

Craig Smith

In Our Shared Environment, for example, Marilyn Zwak proved to skeptical engineers that stabilized adobe could be integrated into a major highway bridge. Through six reptile-shaped support columns and 18 large relief panels of human, abstract and animal images on the structure, she honored the inhabitants of an ancient Hohokam village discovered during freeway excavation.

The word “strategic” also implies intent—ideally sustained and holistic. I often get asked about the overlap between creative placemaking and tactical urbanism, or the relative value of more ephemeral art interventions vs. brick and mortar projects.

Tactical urbanism efforts, like guerilla flower planting in potholes, can do wonders in terms of instigating awareness about community challenges and opportunities.

But to me, to constitute creative placemaking, initiators would 1) coordinate and sustain one-off and ephemeral projects to a strategic end and 2) involve at least a couple different partners, be they government, arts-sector, business leaders or community development organizations.

A volunteer prepares for 2014 Semaine Francais creative placemaking summit in Arnaudville, La.

Photo courtesy of George Marks

A Place-Based Orientation

Creative placemaking is broader than just one organization or one artist—it’s about community transformation.

In tiny Arnaudville, La., for instance, a hometown artist and a stalwart group of volunteers leveraged support from the mayor, town council and even the French Consulate in New Orleans to transform the town from a forgotten hamlet into a rural hub for French language cultivation, Cajun culture, and visual and performing arts.

Markusen and I grounded our definition in geographic community—“a neighborhood, town, tribe, city or region,”—perhaps because of our urban planning backgrounds. Since the paper’s publication, there’s been some lively pushback—a nuanced “people vs. place” creative placemaking debate has emerged.

Roberto Bedoya argues that a preoccupation with the built environment places too little emphasis on the people living in that place, especially those that do not have a claim to “belonging,” because of race, class, legal status or other social justice dynamics stemming from our nation’s far from perfect history of urban, suburban and rural development.

Savvy community developers who understand the power of grassroots community organizing have much to offer their creative placemaking partners on this front.

A core of arts and cultural activities

In Providence, R.I., state and city leaders and urban designers successfully moved freeways and railroads, and unearthed rivers covered in concrete (all good placemaking efforts!).

But it took an artistic installation, Barnaby Evan’s WaterFire, to activate the beautifully designed riverside parks and inspire hope in a city beaten down by population loss and poverty.

Barnaby Evan’s artistic installation WaterFire brings tens of thousands of visitors to downtown Providence for its ritual lighting.

James Turner

Over a six-block stretch of the Providence River in the downtown core, braziers of fire are seemingly suspended over dark water. Over its 20-year history, WaterFire has become an iconic Providence symbol. Powered by 150 volunteers, each ritual lighting draws an average of 40,000-60,000 attendees.

Perhaps sensing a turf incursion, the Project for Public Spaces has asserted “All Placemaking is Creative.”

I don’t want to minimize the worthwhile, challenging, and critical community and economic development work undertaken without any artist involvement or arts-sensibility.

But I, personally, believe in the power of creative placemaking for countless reasons. It’s artists’ ability to see value where others see waste. It’s because participation in arts and cultural expression breaks down barriers across differences and celebrate diverse cultural heritages.

It’s the power that music, visual art making, writing, and theater have to give people a voice and unlock imagination.

It’s also dollars and cents. As artists breathe new life into a neighborhood, others may want to be in their proximity. Because of increased demand, property values can stabilize or increase (the risk being that it may increase too much). Foot traffic from arts and cultural events can be a godsend for ancillary businesses—from restaurants and bars to gas stations in rural communities. Youth can learn valuable job skills and even launch careers in design and art.

And finally, in a recent interactive session I facilitated with some creative placemaking practitioners to try to unearth their underlying objectives, one respondent scrawled “make people smile more” on a post-it note. I almost discounted it, but this allusive hybrid—feeding the soul while fueling economic development—is one of creative placemaking’s most potent attributes. 

Make people smile more. Indeed.

Anne Gadwa Nicodemus is a principal at Metris Arts Consulting and speaks and writes frequently on the intersection of arts and community development.

Posted in Arts & Culture, Thinking Out Loud

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