How Creative Placemaking Can Help Your Neighborhood

Clockwise from top left, images are of REO Town in Lansing, Project Row Houses in Houston, ArtHouse in Gary, and a pop-up park in Budapest, Hungary.

The pros and cons of creative placemaking, with examples.

Communities of all size need to take steps to preserve their sense of home. A strong collective identity means a lot to community members, giving them something to share and take pride in. What’s more, that shared identity connects easily to a local community’s economy, public safety, and public health.

That relationship between identity and public policy is more often noticed when it turns sour. For instance, poor housing and urban blight sometimes change how a community is viewed, and how that community views itself. That makes sense: If the place you live isn’t so great, it’s harder to take pride in it.

One of the most useful tools to counteract or undo that change is creative placemaking. Let’s take a closer look at what this is, its impact, and some examples.

What is creative placemaking?

Broadly, creative placemaking is a deliberate process to directly shape a place’s physical and understood identity, frequently (but not always) through use of arts and culture.

This definition varies among experts though, as placemaking can take shape in physical beautification, “pop-up” events, or basically any program meant to improve relationships between neighbors. But most importantly, this type of placemaking must involve partnerships between public, nonprofit, and private actors with significant input from the community itself. Otherwise, how can community members claim ownership of their space, call it their own?

In addition to reaffirming collective identity, placemaking projects have also been shown to improve community safety and the local economy. In unscientific terms, neighborhood pride can create a vibe of belonging, and that sense of welcome can deter violent crime while attracting small businesses and maybe tourists. All of this can lead to more community investment. Understanding this value, prominent groups like the National Endowment of the Arts, ArtPlace America, and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation offer communities grants for placemaking.

Here’s a common example: Your neighborhood has a city-owned vacant lot that’s an eyesore. Not only does it hurt your community’s image, but it also disinclines people and small businesses to use the spaces and structures around it—it’s preventing future revenue and investment for the neighborhood. But, after you and some neighbors coordinate with community leaders, local artists, the city department in charge of this lot, and some funders (private, nonprofit, or public), that space becomes a refurbished square that showcases local art and music on weekend and provides a location for a farmers’ market.

What’s the relationship between creative placemaking and gentrification?

If you’ve heard of such a story (or taken part in one), then you also know there’s a significant risk in developments like this: gentrification, or a shift in a place’s character that can price low-income residents out of their homes and community. “Beautifying” a space can attract commercial investment and wealthier residents-to-be. If these groups move to a neighborhood en masse, property values and the cost of living can increase dramatically, quickly. Homeowners and small business owners might not be able to afford property taxes; locally-owned businesses might have to compete with newer, bigger businesses.

To be fair, there are several reasons outside of developing a space that contribute to gentrification, like “upscaling” the local housing stock or changes to the public transit system. Additionally, the direction of this relationship—changes in space or more expensive housing lead to gentrification—varies depending on where you live. In some case, placemaking might be the result of broader gentrification.

But this all proves the same point from earlier that community input in creative placemaking is so important. Neighbors need to determine their home’s character through direct actions throughout the process, including:

  • Putting in place community benefits agreements with funders, businesses looking to move in, or other stakeholders
  • Setting aside proceeds from events in the new spaces for exclusive use by neighborhood
  • Stipulating that the art and culture showcased in the new space is from local artists to highlight the existing community, rather than pieces that “artwash” it

Otherwise, this placemaking is just a form of gentrification.

Examples of creative placemaking

There are countless examples of creative placemaking. Let’s look at some unique ones in the U.S. that directly addressed a community’s needs.

  • Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago, Ill., is an old savings and loans building turned arts and culture center on the South Side of town. The center houses collections of music, albums of photographs, and pieces of art provided by local neighbors and the University of Chicago. It also serves as a space for art exhibits, lectures, and the Arts Bank Cinema, an ongoing series of viewings and discussions of films produced by local Black artists, and guest lectures by other artists. The Stony Island Arts Bank is a great example of how creative placemaking can stabilize minority-heavy neighborhoods that are frequently neglected by their cities. The site was purchased and refurbished by the Rebuild Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on transforming spaces through cultural development.
  • Philadelphia Mural Arts Program is arts revitalization of multiple locations in Philly. The city-funded program is internationally recognized and has been in the works for three decades, providing an avenue for neighborhoods to add locally sourced murals to their spaces. The local artists are frequently graduating art students or returning citizens. The city also collaborates with local nonprofits to develop and create these murals, like the Pennsylvania Prison Society, and it hosts mural tours that attract city residents and tourists to local businesses along the way.
  • REO Town in Lansing, Mich., once the site of a car manufacturing facility, is now an arts and entertainment district. The district—about a half square mile—is home to a graffiti art gallery and a venue for exhibits, festivals, and concerts. Lansing’s revitalization efforts eventually attracted a new energy plant to the district, adding hundreds of jobs and poured more money into local placemaking projects. A study found that REO Town has measurably improved city residents’ awareness and appreciation of local arts and culture.
  • ArtHouse, in Gary, Ind., is a culinary arts incubator and community center. ArtHouse, an endeavor from the Rebuild Foundation’s Theaster Gates, features an event space that is frequently used for city-run job fairs and small business classes plus a kitchen that can be rented and used for cooking classes. As an organization, ArtHouse also helps hopeful restaurateurs in bringing their business to Gary.
  • Connect the Lots in Camden, N.J., is a city program that refurbishes vacant spaces for public events like Camden Garden Nights. Like many of the other programs and projects listed earlier, Connect the Lots leans heavily on resident engagement in the planning process. Over the course of a year, Connect the Lots pop-up events offer fitness classes, art exhibits, food festivals—a strong mix of celebratory and informative events to foster a sense of community.

In short, creative placemaking can be a useful way to boost a neighborhood in abstract and concrete ways. However, it’s important to remember this can be a double-edged sword. So, whether you read this thoroughly or skimmed it, walk away with at least this bit: Creative placemaking is neither a solution to urban blight and disinvestment, nor a means to one, unless the process involves local community members. Let neighbors determine their home’s identity.

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