Arts-Based Placemaking is Revitalizing Communities. Could it Help Yours?

Project for Public Spaces | August 28, 2015


Arts-based Placemaking is an integrative approach to urban planning and community building that stimulates local economies and leads to increased innovation, cultural diversity, and civic engagement. The benefits of using arts and culture to tap into a place’s unique character extend well beyond the art world. Across sectors and at all levels, leaders and policymakers are increasingly recognizing how arts-based Placemaking initiatives can simultaneously advance their missions in transportation, housing, employment, health care, environmental sustainability, and education.

A number of funders, organizations, and federal agencies have been working with cities, planners, developers, arts organizations, citizen groups and other institutional stakeholders on these kinds of Placemaking initiatives for several years, and the collective impact of these efforts has really begun to take hold. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has been a key player in the movement through programs like ArtPlace America and the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design (CIRD).  The Kresge Foundation’s Arts & Culture program has also been a key resource for harvesting best practices and new approaches for Creative Placemaking projects. These organizations work to extend the benefits of place to all stakeholders, focusing in particular on low-income communities.

This is important, for just as the barriers to opportunity that many vulnerable or disinvested neighborhoods face do not exist in isolation from each other, neither can we address complex issues—such as discrimination, social inequity, or uneven access to quality public spaces—with a singular agenda in mind. The following three examples illustrate the profound and wide-ranging impacts that place-based arts initiatives can have on the social, cultural, and economic life of communities.

1. City of Asylum, Pittsburgh, PA

House Poem, created by Huang Xiang for the City of Asylum project.

On a street called Sampsonia Way in the low-income Central Northside neighborhood of Pittsburgh, writers-in-exile can now find sanctuary and respite at City of Asylum – a hybrid arts and social service organization that transforms vacant and blighted residential properties into homes, venues for civic and cultural programs, and public spaces for arts-based community programs. In exchange for rent-free living and working space, medical benefits, a living stipend, help in securing publishers and long-term employment, City of Asylum’s visiting artists can be found teaching creative writing to local school-age children, holding public readings in the adjacent Reading Garden, or joining local musicians in parading down a newly-build trail to the river’s edge during the Jazz Poetry Festival. A nearby former masonic temple is currently being converted into “Alphabet City”—a multi-use facility for arts-based programs that will include a bookstore and restaurant.

2. Oregon County Food Producers and Artisans Co-op, Alton, MO

Oregon Food Producers & Artisans Coop
Oregon Food Producers & Artisans Coop

In the small Ozark town of Alton, Missouri, the staff of Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design (CIRD) worked with the Oregon County Food Producers and Artisans Co-Op—a multi-functional organization that operates an art gallery, market space, community center, and education facility. Allowing local farmers and artisans to collaborate and supplement their incomes, the Co-op works to sustain the local communities and economies of Oregon County by tapping into the products, skills, and knowledge of its residents. Along with the market, their building also has a certified community kitchen which is used for business incubation, a pay-what-you-can lunch program, and culinary training workshops, and outside there is a large raised-bed garden, which is both an educational outreach tool and a source of fresh produce for the kitchen. A popular community hub, the Co-op hosts frequent events, from local auctions and film screenings to “pickin’ parties” and bimonthly instrumental jam sessions. These programs help to nurture a strong sense of community and place amongst area residents, and there is also an on-site folklife library with a collection of books, art, and music that highlights the cultural history of the Ozark region.

3. REVOLVE Detroit, Detroit, MI

pop-up community hub detroit
In creating a pop-up community hub, the Livernois Community Storefront project in Detroit celebrates local culture and brings attention to local businesses on the Avenue of Fashion.

In the spring of 2013, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation received a grant fromArtPlace America to display art in vacant storefronts and underperforming public spaces on a stretch of Livernois Avenue, between Seven and Eight Mile Roads in Detroit. The Revolve Detroit program worked with local groups to fill these storefronts with various pop-up shops and art installations. This exciting program engages art and entrepreneurship to creatively reimagine—and sometimes completely transform—the image and potential of Detroit’s historic neighborhoods. The Livernois Community Storefront project, for example, serves as a community hub to connect and engage the local community on a regular and ongoing basis, and has hosted theater events, design festivals, an art studio, and an old-fashioned soda fountain, and it has helped business and culture to thrive along this historic Avenue of Fashion, as it was once known.

As these examples show, effective arts-based Placemaking projects go well beyond the idea of art for art’s sake. The goal of this work is to build strong, healthy, and resilient cities by integrating the arts into broader community revitalization and Placemaking efforts. It is about leveraging the power of arts and culture to strengthen communities and drive social change. The arts do more than just promote social well-being, as CEO of the Kresge Foundation Rip Rapson has pointed out, they are indispensable elements of it. And because they have always played an important role in the life of our cities and communities, the arts need to be a central component, not an afterthought, in our policy and planning discussions – or indeed in “any public, private, [or] community conversations that seek to bring about change.”

To ensure the success of these projects, there also needs to be a tacit understanding amongst everyone involved that the community is the expert. Indeed, unlike other projects labeled “Creative Placemaking,” where artists themselves take the reins, or where the ultimate outcome is a completed work of public art, arts-based Placemaking from our perspective is fundamentally collaborative, engaging the community and stakeholders from the very beginning. The community itself is both the driving force of the project and the key measure of its success.

“Cultural creativity may well be the driving force of community revitalization in the 21st century”

This emphasis on process over outcome is crucial. At PPS, we believe that for any place to be truly successful, people must not only feel like they belong, but also that they can play an active part in the creation, management, and continued success of that place. And while the place, the physical product itself, is certainly important in this process, it is the focus on making—on community engagement and empowerment—that is perhaps even more vital for sustainable and lasting change.

Given the increasing role of innovation and collaboration in today’s urban economies, the flourishing of arts-based Placemaking projects is both timely and essential. As Rip Rapson of the Kresge Foundation has so eloquently explained: “Cultural creativity may well be the driving force of community revitalization in the 21st century. It promises more adaptive ways of seeing, understanding, experiencing, and transforming where we live, how we work, and what we dream.”

Top photo: Harvest Dinner Party, Camden, New Jersey. In October 2014, residents, local artists, community organizations and stakeholders came together for an evening meal featuring the largest tablecloth on record in America, created by Camden Residents. The Harvest is a participatory art and community event made possible by grants from ArtPlace America, The Kresge Foundation, and the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation.

Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is a nonprofit planning, design and educational organization dedicated to helping people create and sustain public spaces that build stronger communities. This story originally appeared on the PPS website


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