In the final post of his blog series, Chris Walker, LISC’s director of research, explains how creative placemaking leverages the power of local artists, culture and history to create economic opportunity and improve their overall quality of life in urban and rural communities alike.
For many people, conversations about arts and culture focus on what they saw at the theater last weekend or a new exhibit at their favorite art museum.
Those of us who work in community development take a bit of a different view. In the places where we work, arts and culture are not about audiences for art, but about people’s participation in culture. This means attending events, sure, but it also means creating art, practicing cultural traditions, helping organize events, and leading others to appreciate the spiritual strength the community’s own culture lends.
So cultural participation isn’t only what happens at the theater, but also in the most democratic of places – parks and other public places, storefronts, rowhouse walls, the streets at festival time. Or in bars where music is played. Or in a local gallery where a neighbor sells her art.
We have found, as others have, that cultural participation – in the form of “creative placemaking” – is a proven strategy that builds community connections, spurs inclusive economic opportunity and advances revitalization.
Maybe most importantly, creative placemaking as we practice it relies on the assets of the communities themselves, not on outside development forces. It taps into the talent and imagination of local residents, artists, and arts businesses to elevate the rich history and culture of the places they live and work.
An increasing body of academic and industry research offers proof points for how and why creative placemaking succeeds. It highlights replicable approaches that create jobs, improve safety, expand entrepreneurship and grow local incomes in both urban and rural areas. The broad conclusion is that when we invest in community-rooted arts and culture, we invest in a more inclusive prosperity, one in which people of all incomes and backgrounds have an opportunity to share in the gains.
At LISC, we look at two strands of creative placemaking as being particularly influential. The first involves support for locally led efforts that build social cohesion, strengthening residents’ connection to their community and to each other. This has value in its own right, but it makes other good things happen too. For example, in places where social cohesion is high, there tends to be less crime—even if unemployment and poverty persists. The difference is neighbors’ commitment to each other and shared stake in the future.
Second, culture-led physical and economic development lays the groundwork for follow-on investments that create opportunities for residents. It makes the most of a community’s own assets, so arts-related businesses fill vacant lots, create jobs, brighten dark corners, and bring a new range of goods and services to the area. Communities once labeled as distressed and dangerous begin to attract visitors and shoppers. In this way, cultural identities become pathways to material well-being.
For LISC, those two lines of work are closely related, each reinforcing the other. For instance, in the Little Africa and Little Mekong communities of St. Paul, local artists express cultural identities through weaving or cuisine, simultaneously earning income and building the community’s reputation as a source of unique character and culture. In South Providence, a local cultural center is home to a range of ethnic dance, music and storytelling artists, advancing a cultural mosaic where everyone is welcome. In West Philadelphia, a jazz festival sponsored by a local nonprofit attracts thousands of shoppers to local businesses, while providing a stage for local musicians.
And the list goes on….from a bustling new craft manufacturing district in Duluth’s Lincoln Park to a ground-breaking program that connects youth music education to social justice efforts in Cincinnati’s Price Hill. LISC connects this work more broadly to our investments in housing, businesses, schools, parks, and jobs. Support for the arts reinforces all of them.
The results are a hopeful reflection of our communities’ strengths. With a clear local vision and the right kind of capital, they can tap into their rich cultures and histories to unlock a host of new opportunities. It is exciting and energizing work.
For more on creative placemaking, check out some of the LISC case studies detailing the opportunities and impact of this work:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Walker, Director of Research & Assessment
Chris is responsible for assembling, conducting, sponsoring and disseminating research on community development’s contributions to the well-being of individuals, families and communities. He also supports the research activities of our local programs throughout the United States. Prior to joining LISC in 2005, Chris directed a community and economic development research program at the Urban Institute, where he led studies of affordable housing, community lending, arts and culture and other community development issues.