The Secret to Successful Creative Placemaking? Keep It Inclusive

We've spent a good deal of time here at IP talking about the promise of creative placemaking. But what about the peril?

Talk to many of the art sector's most active creative placemaking proponents and they'll tell you such efforts aren't without risk. Long-time residents may view artists as interlopers or gentrifiers. Winning projects, while good on paper, may alter the neighborhood for the worse. And only a small percentage of residents may benefit from the resulting economic growth.

How can artists and organizations see that this doesn't happen? For an answer we turn to a piece by Darien Carr on John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's blog, entitled Protecting the Importance of Place in Creative Placemaking. Carr, the winner of a Knight Cities Challenge winner in Philadelphia for his Pop Up Pool project, expounded on his lessons learned from the creative placemaking crucible.

Carr's most powerful takeaway can be summed up in one word: inclusivity. Creative placemaking isn't building a "place" from scratch. After all, the place already exists. Residents have lived there for generations. Creative placemakers must feed off and build upon these existing structures rather than seek to uproot them. Here's Carr:

Places are made from narratives, not blank slates. That’s why it’s essential to acknowledge the heritage unique to any location and to work in partnership with the community. Placemakers can work with residents to ensure that culture, the medium that grounds communities in their identity, transforms the way they interact with their neighborhoods.

So does this concept play out in practice? In Carr's case, his Pop Up Pool Project used upgraded design to attract more people to a local public pool located in Francisville. But more importantly, the work was done in close collaboration with local residents, "coordinating with community organizations to include local artists and small business owners in the installation."

In short, the project didn't create a place out of whole cloth but instead optimized an existing location to generate new forms of participation and engagement. And therein lies another lesson. Scan Inside Philanthropy on any given day and you'll see dozens of gifts funded by billionaires that seek to transform the very fabric of society. These bold, audacious projects can mask the fact that change can also be incremental, subtle, and even quaint.

But even the relatively nascent creative placemaking space isn't completely stagnant. Some funders are thinking big. Kresge, for example, recently awarded a $1.5 million grant to fund the New York City-based EmcArts' Community Innovation Labs program whose creative placemaking efforts aim for nothing less than solving "intractable social problems." 

Regardless of one's goals, organizations would be wise to remember these important parting thoughts from Carr:

Places are not only geographic locations. They are diverse communities whose unique existence depends on both history and culture. The people that live in these neighborhoods know this better than anyone. It is up to placemakers to hear what they have to say.

In related news, ArtPlace America, announced 80 projects that it will consider for its 2016 National Creative Placemaking Fund. There's no guarantee every project will walk away with funding, we fervently believe we can learn a lot from the possible runners-up.