Town and Country: What's Happening With Creative Placemaking?

photo: Nicole S Glass/shutterstock

photo: Nicole S Glass/shutterstock

ArtPlace America defines creative placemaking as an approach that uses the arts to "shape the social, physical, and economic futures of communities."

That sounds simple enough, but as ArtPlace will admit, there are striking differences between rural and urban communities that invariably influence one's approach. Recent news from ArtPlace and an equally influential creative placemaking player, the Kresge Foundation, underscore distinct challenges in each area.

ArtPlace, which announced the 70 projects in June that it will consider for its 2017 National Creative Placemaking Fund, continues to give more attention to rural areas. As we've often reported, rural communities tend to get short shrift in a creative placemaking movement that's mainly focused on cities. ArtPlace has made a point of remedying that imbalance, looking for new ways the arts can revitalize places that face deep economic challenges, and more recently, a growing opioid epidemic.

Meanwhile, the Kresge Foundation published two illuminating case studies on successful creative placemaking efforts in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. Longtime urban residents remain fearful of growing gentrification, and a close read of the case studies reveals planners' collaborative efforts to allay these concerns.

Given each funder's large footprint in the creative placemaking space, all this is worth a closer look. 

ArtPlace America: A Growing Focus on Rural Communities

When ArtPlace announced the winners of its 2016 National Creative Placemaking Fund, it made clear its growing concern with rural America:

ArtPlace’s cumulative portfolio percentage investment in rural communities is 21 percent—aligned with the geographic spread of the country's population. Almost 30 percent of our 2016 investments are in rural communities, reflecting a concerted and sustained effort to support this population.

This was a prescient move, given all the attention to the deep problems in rural America in the wake of the 216 election. What's more, if proposed cuts to public funding for the arts happen, rural communities are expected to be among the biggest losers, since the NEA is a critical funder of local music and art exhibitions in parts of the country that are off the beaten philanthropy path.  

As for this year's finalists for ArtPlace grants, 34 percent hailed from rural areas. ArtPlace says it's noticed an "increase in regional projects; many working collaboratively across adjacent rural communities." It also said that proposed projects reflected a "sustained interest in water projects that, this year, focused on its use and preservation," and requests for improving or introducing broadband access to rural communities to "increase economic opportunity."

Only 55 percent of people living in rural areas have access to internet speeds that qualify as broadband, compared to 94 percent of the urban population. ArtPlace understands that rural communities can't lure millennials back home, build sustainable arts ecosystems, or attract high-tech employers with Stone Age internet speeds. Don't be surprised if ArtPlace's 2017's investments in rural communities exceeds 2016's figure of 30 percent.

Kresge: Building Inclusivity in Urban Areas

Meanwhile, in urban areas, creative placemakers wrestle with very different challenges. Let's turn to two case studies courtesy of the Kresge Foundation, published in tandem with Point Forward.

In Cleveland, a community development corporation worked with a local arts intermediary to reverse a population decline in the city's North Collinwood neighborhood and rebuild a central commercial corridor. The approach included financing mechanisms to help artists buy homes and supplementing “informational meeting” formats with arts-based activities for families.

In D.C.'s Brookland-Edgewood neighborhood, a network of partners—including a government agency (D.C.'s Office of Planning), a developer, local residents, and Dance Place—created a dialogue around development, including hosting an “art exhibition-style” presentation of the developer’s plans.

Residents' fears of disruptive gentrification are very real and artists can be seen as part of the problem. Things have reached a new level of intensity as rents rise and local pushback grows along with it. Look no further than Los Angeles, where PSSST, an arts nonprofit in Boyle Heights, closed its doors after relentless harassment from anti-gentrification activists. The group stated at the same time: "The ongoing controversy surrounding art and gentrification in Boyle Heights caused PSSST to become so contested that we are unable to ethically and financially proceed with our mission." This may be a harbinger of things to come.

Griff Coleman, a principal at Point Forward, is aware of what amounts to a highly delicate PR challenge, noting, "neighborhoods thrive when developers work with local needs, customs and histories, instead of squeezing them out as has happened in many other places across the country.”

It's a concept I explored when looking at creative placemaking best practices courtesy of Knight Cities Challenge winner Darien Carr, who said:

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

Coleman and Carr ultimately point to one component of creative placemaking that transcends location. ArtPlace may be giving more attention to rural areas and Kresge may be increasingly cognizant of building community inclusion in cities, but all successful creative placemaking efforts, to quote Kresge's Regina R. Smith, should reflect "the authentic characters and histories" of neighborhoods and communities.