Connecting Community and Culture: A Decade of Creative Placemaking

A Creative Happy Hour in Bloomington, Minnesota, hosts activities ranging from live salsa music and dance instruction, free hot chocolate and dessert table, to an interactive 3D mural. In Los Alamos, New Mexico, the monthly downtown “On Tap” series promoted by Creative Los Alamos engages participants over food and drinks in discussion of topics in areas of science, history, nature, art, and culture.

Creative placemaking is where arts and culture meet local economic development in unique community spaces. As a community development tool that brings together entrepreneurs, stakeholders, and residents, creative placemaking can be used to activate underused spaces, stimulate neighborhood vitality, and generate new opportunities for conversation and interaction.

The blossoming of creative placemaking over the last decade has been largely propelled by ArtPlace, a ten-year initiative launched in 2011 by chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts Rocco Landesman. Landesman brought together several philanthropic organizations, banks, and federal agencies to invest time, money, and resources to position arts and culture as a foundation of community planning and development.  In the last seven years, ArtPlace has invested $87 million in 279 creative placemaking projects in 208 urban, rural, and suburban communities across the United States.

A three-year, $200,000 grant awarded in 2017 from Artplace’s National Creative Placemaking Fund will support a neighborhood improvement project on the northwest side of Indianapolis. The RECLAIM project, under the leadership of Lashawnda Crowe Storm and Phyllis Viola Boyd with the Polis Center at Indiana University/Purdue University Indianapolis, aims to use art to turn vacant, unsafe spaces into safe pathways for elementary school children. The overall project includes a series of design, business and community development workshops.

The Urban Land Institute’s Building Healthy Places initiative has studied creative placemaking with a particular focus on real estate development. Best practices they have identified include:

  • Determine the role of creative placemaking in realizing the project’s vision.
  • Bring together a strong team to lead the effort, including architects, designers, artists, and community engagement professionals.
  • Demonstrate how creative placemaking adds value.
  • Develop and implement a plan strategically to achieve desired outcomes and avoid unintended consequences.
  • Embrace ample communication and engagement with project stakeholders.

Employed ambitiously and collaboratively, creative placemaking can have transformative effects. On a neighborhood scale, Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative reclaimed a formerly abandoned public housing site in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. The project was led by local conceptual artist Theaster Gates and his Rebuild Foundation in partnership with Brinshore Development, Landon Bone Baker Architects, and the Chicago Housing Authority. The result: 32 two-story townhouses in a unique mixed-income public housing redevelopment with an arts center and a preference for artist-residents.

Rural areas benefit from creative placemaking, too. The National Endowment for the Arts offers funding and technical assistance for rural creative placemaking across the United States, recognizing the need to expressly dedicate resources to rural communities and generate economic, educational, and social impacts through the arts.

Kinston, North Carolina is a former tobacco town along the Neuse River and home to about 21,000 residents. smART Kinston, established under the North Carolina Arts Council smART initiative, seeks to recruit artists to the area and promote the Arts & Cultural District in downtown Kinston.  The Arts River Walk runs through the Arts & Culture district and connects the area to downtown and to Kinston Music Park. Successes have included more than 50 homes rehabilitated in the Arts & Cultural District, including several artists in residence, and new downtown murals and public art. In Kinston/Lenoir County, where the population is 70 percent African American, the rural placemaking effort also seeks to unify the community and address the long history of segregation, in partnership with the state’s African American Heritage Commission.

Over the past decade, creative placemaking has been a lively contributor to incorporate arts and culture into social, physical, and economic community initiatives. Connecting community and culture in this way can rejuvenate distressed or underused places, foster local support, increase community pride, and drive local economies.

Post by Deborah Myerson, Executive Director at South Central Indiana Housing Opportunities (SCIHO) in Bloomington, Indiana.

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