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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Creative Placemaking

Or, at least almost everything. Creative placemaking is becoming an increasingly integral part of community development work. In the interview that follows, Lynne McCormack, LISC's director of creative placemaking, answers some fundamental questions about the term. For starters: what the heck is it?

“Creative placemaking” is a relatively new term that can be hard to pin down. Can you tell us about its origin and evolution?

The term “placemaking” has been used in the community development field since the 1960s. It’s an overarching strategy for improving local places. You can’t change a place just by developing housing, you can’t just improve public safety or make streets attractive. We’ve learned that improving quality of life in disinvested places takes a multipronged, overall approach.

The word “creative” adds arts and culture into that mix: How do we strengthen the transformation of a place by being creative, by bringing artists and arts organizations into the fold? Culture is one of those things that in the U.S. is an add-on, but in every other place in the world is actually just part of what you do. And for LISC, it’s not about bringing culture into a neighborhood, but rather cultivating the arts and culture that are already there. It’s about creating space for residents to strengthen their own neighborhoods by teaming up with artists to design solutions for issues in the community. 

The first big push on the term “creative placemaking” was in 2011, when the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) issued a white paper on the subject. It was a fairly rigorous study of communities using arts and culture to change places, mainly through a community development lens.

When a neighborhood celebrates its history and culture, it becomes a place people want to be.
When a neighborhood celebrates its history and culture, it becomes a place people want to be.

How is creative placemaking different from simply investing in the arts in a struggling place?

The idea is to use arts and culture to build social connection—and we believe that enhances the other elements of community development.

Let’s say you take a historically disinvested place, and organize an event there that brings residents out of their homes, brings people to that place and lets everyone see it in a different way. People start to take ownership of the place. That’s a very simple placemaking 101 strategy. It’s better when the community is involved in connecting their culture to that event. It’s better still when the community catalyzes the event, and participates in planning and implementing it.

So there’s more to it—there’s something behind the scenes that’s actually bringing people in the neighborhood together to start to re-envision or lift up the history of the place, the beauty of the place, the culture of the place.

So it sees neighborhood people not just as consumers of art but also as makers?

Definitely. Creation is inherent in being human. People cook, make music, sing in a church choir, sew, knit, create traditional crafts. And the list goes on. Everyone has a story to tell. When residents can be part of making the art, whether it be planning a festival, participating in a story-telling project, or designing a bus shelter, a sense of ownership develops. That’s creative placemaking at its best. It’s not an artist coming in and dictating what is important, but residents tapping into what is relevant to their neighborhood. 

Daylighting the rich story and culture of the neighborhood for and by the people who live there can lead to a sense of pride that is very important. And that in turn translates to non-residents who may have mislabeled and misunderstood the place. Together, these things can build social and economic capital that benefit the lives of current residents. 

When a place looks cared for, it sends a message to the rest of the world that “we have this, it’s ours and we are proud to be here.”

Can you explain that—how people get to know one another through creative placemaking?

Price Hill in Cincinnati is a good example. It was traditionally an Appalachian and German neighborhood, but there are now new immigrants from Central America and Africa as well as current African American residents who have been dislocated from other neighborhoods in Cincinnati. So there are distinct cultural groups within the larger community that don’t necessarily come together.

An organization called Price Hill Will began using arts strategies to bring people together. They started with a youth orchestra whose members reflect the makeup of the neighborhood. The parents got to know each other. Laura Jekel, who founded and led the orchestra, is now working as an embedded artist in the organization. She’s been creating events with the community that reflect the diverse cultures of the neighborhood—and even playing her cello at the supermarket each week as a way to connect with people. She’s also collecting residents’ concerns and dreams and sharing that information as part of neighborhood planning and project implementation.

Now, because of this work, when there’s a community meeting, it’s not just the older folks who have been there for 50 or 60 years showing up. Attendance is very much representative of the neighborhood—because people feel engaged and connected to each other.

MYCincinnati (Music for Youth in Cincinnati), a free orchestra program, emerged as part of a broad creative placemaking effort in the Price Hill neighborhood.
MYCincinnati (Music for Youth in Cincinnati), a free orchestra program, emerged as part of a broad creative placemaking effort in the Price Hill neighborhood.

Does creative placemaking need to make physical changes to a neighborhood?

I think that takes time, but yes, to change the perception of the community through the built environment is a key component. It could be façade improvements, or some of the Main Street strategies that we all use in economic development. It could emerge from mural and public art strategies, public space design, or things like artists’ housing, galleries, live/work spaces and cultural facilities. When a place looks cared for, it sends a message to the rest of the world that “we have this, it’s ours and we are proud to be here.”
 

What about economic benefits for a neighborhood?

That’s part of the goal, because the whole point of community development is to create pipelines and opportunities for everyone who lives there.

A big sector of the arts is small business—manufacturing companies, sign painters who hire people, craftspeople who need assistance. It’s the way businesses started three hundred years ago. Our country’s economy was founded on artists and craftsmen who made quality things. Think of Paul Revere, a silversmith; he was an artist, a craftsperson who was also a businessman and a statesman. So there are all kinds of opportunities for artists, who then employ other people and contribute to civic life. 

Then there’s the notion that when you start to make a place more appealing and more socially cohesive, other people want to come there and this leads to gentrification. But our goal is this work will create a conduit of investment opportunities for current residents and businesses. 

The common scenario is that creative placemaking can boost a neighborhood market area. A building owner lets a pop-up gallery come in; it brings more people to a place. And that leads to food trucks coming, which leads to a restaurant opening up. This is a classic gentrification story. But what if the businesses that open are owned by neighborhood artists and residents? If we can align resources for site control of buildings, combine forces with our financial opportunity centers and economic development tools, we have the recipe for neighborhood investment and transformation that gives agency to current residents.

The People's Paper Co-op in the Eastern North neighborhood of Philadelphia is a program of the Village of Arts & Humanities that works with formerly incarcerated residents. The Co-op merges legal advocacy, job training and community building, and employs artists who've gone through their programs.
The People's Paper Co-op in the Eastern North neighborhood of Philadelphia is a program of the Village of Arts & Humanities that works with formerly incarcerated residents. The Co-op merges legal advocacy, job training and community building, and employs artists who've gone through their programs.

Are gentrification and displacement a concern?

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, artists were seen as urban pioneers who would go into places where nobody else would go. Then all of a sudden, property values would go up because the artists improved places. Some cities even mounted campaigns to support artists because they were the people who would go into buildings in downtowns or post-industrial mill buildings that had been left empty for decades. I think it’s really important to understand that when artists get together, it’s about building opportunities for connection, for discussion of ideas, for celebrating together and living a shared vision.

There’s a myth that artists gentrify places. But artists don’t gentrify places. They make a place attractive because they build community and create a sense of optimism where there was disinvestment. That attracts businesses that would not have otherwise come. And then rents go up and the artists have to move on. 

What we’re trying to do with creative placemaking is put a stake in the ground and say: “this kind of community building is valuable and should be cultivated and invested in.” On the flip side, artists need to understand that when they come into a place, they are not the first ones there, there’s a long history that preexists them—and what they do can impact that place in ways they may not intend.

What's new on the horizon for LISC's creative placemaking work?

The work is going on around in virtually every one of our sites. Right now, as part of a three-year grant from the Kresge Foundation, LISC has creative placemaking projects in five locations—Indianapolis, Cincinnati, the Twin Cities, Philadelphia, and Rhode Island. They all use different approaches, but every office is working to see how creative placemaking can support an existing community development plan. LISC is both helping to implement the projects and learning from them: What works? How can we use creative placemaking as a strategy across the board? The main thrust of the Kresge grant is to embed creative placemaking in LISC’s comprehensive approach to neighborhood revitalization.

Recently, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Kresge Foundation enlisted us to develop a technical assistance program for communities that are working on creative placemaking. This pilot initiative will involve seven grantees in the NEA’s Our Town program and seven from the Kresge grantee portfolio. We're also creating a “fellowship” approach that brings together the core constituencies of a robust creative placemaking effort—CDCs, artists, public safety officials, government representatives, businesspeople, residents, faith-based organizations, etc. These coalitions will work with a creative placemaking curriculum we’re developing. It’s made up of modular units, and is adjustable for communities just getting started and for others that may need only one or two elements.

In creative placemaking, inclusion is fundamental. You don’t ask people for their feedback on something that’s already been made. You ask them to start with you at the beginning.

So do artists working in creative placemaking need special skills?

If you’re coming into the field of creative placemaking, your number one priority is being part of connecting community through art. Your goal is to help highlight neighborhood history, connect the past and the present, bring people together to learn about each other, explore culture. 

So the artists, whether they’re from the neighborhood where they work, or coming from somewhere else, do need to have translation skills. They need to be able to understand a problem in the neighborhood, to uncover things that are going on. They need to understand how to look for cues in behavior and to listen to people express what they need or feel is missing or what their hopes are. Artists are coming at it from a human place: How do I relate to this person?

Creative placemaking projects can both change the look of a neighborhood and invite residents and passersby to think about what they might contribute to the process of strengthening the community.
Creative placemaking projects can both change the look of a neighborhood and invite residents and passersby to think about what they might contribute to the process of strengthening the community.

If part of the goal is to create places that reflect neighborhood identities, isn’t it a challenge to ensure equity and inclusion?

Of course, people doing this work believe that everybody should be able to participate. But whether or not that happens is a big question. How hard people will work to make sure that happens is an even bigger question.

In the creative placemaking movement, inclusion is a fundamental tenet. It’s a place-based approach, so you’re working within a specific square mileage. If, as an artist or community development corporation, you want to use creative placemaking to build cohesion in that defined place, how do you constantly make sure you’re not missing people’s voices?

You send community organizers knocking on doors and talking to people to bring the information back. You set a table that’s so appealing people want to come. You don’t ask people for their feedback on something that’s already been made. You ask them to start with you at the beginning.

About Lynne McCormack

As head of the creative placemaking program, Lynne, an artist by training, oversees LISC’s many projects that bring arts and culture into the work of comprehensive community development. Before joining LISC, Lynne served as the director of Art, Culture and Tourism for the city of Providence. For over thirty years, she has worked at the intersection of arts and community, forging partnerships that brought grants, festivals, employment opportunities and increased funding for arts-based development to the city. Lynne holds a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design.

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