Making Sense of Creative Placemaking

Creative placemaking leverages arts and culture to serve communities. NACEDA Intern Max Brekke provides compelling examples as he makes sense of this growing field.

May 15, 2015

How does creative placemaking leverage the arts and culture to serve communities? Artspace Buffalo Lofts, SteelStacks, and the Seattle City of Music provide some great examples.

As a NACEDA intern, I first learned about the community development field in January with the start of the Spring 2015 NACEDA Internship. Understanding the field proved to be no walk in the park. Between multifaceted policies, a myriad of organizations and stakeholders, grasping community development is challenging for anyone. During the past few months at NACEDA, I realized it’s a challenge for everyone because the people who work in community development are always looking for ways to improve their communities. Working to address the bigger issues that face communities and promoting healthy and vibrant places to live is a dynamic process that demands new practices and approaches sensitive to complex issues.

Defining creative placemaking

Just as diverse as the field, there are a multitude of practices and approaches people and organizations take. One of these that I find particularly interesting is creative placemaking. While creative placemaking has been a growing practice since the 1960s, there is no canonized definition. It is a philosophy and practice that is changing and often contested. For a starting point, let’s take Artscape DIY’s definition: “Creative Placemaking is an evolving field of practice that intentionally leverages the power of the arts, culture and creativity to serve a community’s interest while driving a broader agenda for change, growth and transformation in a way that also builds character and quality of place.”

Understanding definitions is essential but only one piece of the puzzle. Seeing what has been done before and the application of creative placemaking is even more essential to those working in community development. The rest of this blog is dedicated to exploring a way of concisely thinking about creative placemaking, applying it in communities and seeing the benefits of infusing culture and arts into the process.

Leveraging communities' creative potential

Creative placemaking leverages creative potential within communities and expands culture and art initiatives. It acts by directly linking art to the development of places and community infrastructure. Artists are seen as developers and stakeholders who can help develop the distinct character of a community. I believe creative placemaking involves these three principles:

  1. Artists are at the center of planning and execution of placemaking;
  2. Cultural initiatives are public and engage the community;
  3. Initiatives are committed to distinctive local characteristics and identity of the community.

While keeping these in mind, let’s explore how nonprofits, developers, local governments and communities use them to energize communities.

Artist lofts bridge economic divides

In community development, providing equitable housing is often one of the biggest concerns and projects for the field. In a neglected area of Buffalo, New York, an abandoned auto factory was turned into 60 homes for artist with low incomes. Artists, arts organizations and the surrounding neighborhoods supported the project alongside the nonprofit developer. Funded and supported by the city,ArtSpace Buffalo Lofts has broken down social and economic divides in a highly-challenged neighborhood through the inclusion of artist work-live spaces. The community and artists continue to benefit by operating art openings and a gallery next to Lofts. Through the acquisition of the factory and events hosted for the community, this creative space has become a valued and distinctive Buffalo neighborhood.

Industrial relic resurrected

The SteelStacks project of ArtsQuest is a unique American celebration of heritage, culture and art. The Bethlehem Steel Plant, a symbol of Bethlehem’s Pennsylvania’s history in the steel industry, was redeveloped to become a center for arts and culture. A local artist was hired to create a sculpture centerpiece for the facility that would represent the spirit of the community. SteelStacks continues to engage the community by providing performances and festivals. Like ArtSpace Buffalo Lots, Steel Stacks had nonprofit arts organizations as essential partners in the development process. By creating a center for arts in Bethlehem, SteelStacks activates and nurtures the local creative potential of the community while identifying with its distinctive characteristics.

Music, dance and community cohesion

Nurturing the arts already present in a community can be done from other angles. In Seattle, Washington, local musicians pushed the city to recognize and support Seattle’s music industry. The city installed the City of Music Initiative, funding K-12 music education initiatives, college scholarships for music-oriented youths and a health clinic tailored for musicians. In addition, the city promoted outdoor festivals, music venues and local musicians to enhance the music presence within communities. To safeguard the established local music industry, Seattle also offered music business retention programs. The City of Music Initiative looked locally and comprehensively supported creative projects to foster growth for local musicians.

While some approaches to creative placemaking are oriented towards development or policy, some of the most effective are simpler. In Washington DC, Dance Place is a nonprofit that provides performances and classes in a neighborhood known for crime and economic difficulties. With funds from the National Endowment of the Arts, Dance Place programs represent the diverse community identity and address its problems through dance performances and arts. For weeks they offered free performances at a key open plaza within the community. Their efforts brought large public audiences and fostered cohesion between old and new residents. Funding existing organizations, like Dance Place, means funding those that know how to best attract and target their community to create a sense of identity and pride while offering and fostering creativity.

When working on larger development plans such as transportation, creative placemaking can be an effective tool to doing a project right. In Portland, Oregon, after ethnic communities challenged the city’s plans for light rail, transit staffers made the case to engage the community in design and planning process. Nearly 75 community members helped establish the initial vision and select local artist were hired to animate the new transit stops.Today, Portland's transit stops are covered with artwork and encourage ridership while addressing community identity and social inequalities.

When looking at successful creative placemaking initiatives and thinking about effective strategies, I learned that communities and cultural efforts are most likely to thrive when housing, healthcare, education, transportation or creative spaces are developed with and for local artists and community members. Secondly, including community-based arts and artists into the planning process allows for a sense of local identity and community involvement. Lastly, making sure the projects, developments, performances or installations are accessible to the community as well as a characteristic of the community. These practices can be applied in many community development projects and have already proved their efficacy in communities and cities throughout the nation.

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