17 April 2013 // Thoughts

The Business of Culture: Creative Placemaking Part 1 – What Is It?

Welcome back to “The Business of Culture: The Impact of Museums on Economic Development.” In our previous segments, we’ve shown that good things can happen when governments, impassioned citizens and developers come together to create cultural resources. From Fountain Square’s free concerts to 21c Museum Hotel’s art gallery, these free spaces help community members connect, and this connection can have long-term economic development benefits. They are products of a concept called “placemaking,” and over the next three days, we’ll discuss what the term means, offer a couple of examples of how it’s been used in community planning, and explore its potential for economic impact.

According to Project for Public Spaces:

Placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. Put simply, it involves looking at, listening to, and asking questions of the people who live, work and play in a particular space, to discover their needs and aspirations.

The term, which originated in the 1960s, refers to a process that emphasizes community collaboration in driving neighborhood revitalization and involves viewing a particular place holistically versus “zeroing in on isolated fragments.” The process of developing a public space via creative placemaking begins by identifying what a public space does have – its talents and assets – versus what it doesn’t. Placemaking is not just about designing buildings, but about introducing physical elements, like seating, parks, and squares, that encourage community interaction and create a comfortable, accessible environment. According to PPS, “by looking at how people are using (or not using) public spaces…it is possible to find out what makes them work and not work.”

Central to the concept of placemaking is triangulation, which PPS defines as a “choice arrangement of different elements in relation to each other.” In the 1980s and 90s, “big box” opera houses and art museums were being built in isolation, with nothing to connect them to other cultural, natural or complimentary assets (restaurants, retail, etc.). When placemaking is at play, these resources are coordinated within pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use developments on scales as large as a multi-state region or as small as a city neighborhood or rural community. The key is to avoid “cookie-cutter” planning and build by making sure the revitalization effort coincides with community character.

In their paper Creative Placemaking, Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa write, “in creative placemaking, partners from public, private, non-profit and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city or region around arts and cultural activities.” Such efforts are particularly necessary, they argue, in areas that have struggled with “structural change and residential uprooting.”

According to Markusen and Gadwa, creative placemaking fosters economic development by

  1. Keeping residents’ incomes in the local community,
  2. Re-using vacant and under-utilized land and buildings,
  3. Creating jobs in the contracting and cultural sectors,
  4. Expanding entrepreneurial activity,
  5. Training the next generation of creative leaders, and
  6. Attracting and retaining non-arts businesses and labor (we’ll discuss these last four topics in depth in an upcoming post).

As we learned from the 21c Museum Hotels example, “re-using vacant space generates local property and tax revenues that can be devoted to streets, lighting, sanitation, greenery and police and fire.”

Favela Painting collaborates with communities to use art for transformation. (Haas&Hahn for favelapainting.com via Project for Public Spaces)

A successful placemaking initiative “produces livability and sustainability gains, new jobs and economic opportunity without causing displacement or alienation.” The ability to achieve this level of success must be rooted in a strong desire to seek out, listen and react to the needs and desires of the community and its various players. It means identifying “creative initiators” to spearhead the initiative, which can range from a couple of business people who just happen to love art (as with 21c), to a group of wayfaring artists looking for a home. As mentioned above, it means “designing around distinctiveness,” leveraging a community’s assets (in the case of Cincinnati, its unique architecture and riverfront). It involves mobilizing and engaging various stakeholders, from the mayor and city council to banks and foundations to the arts community, to secure their financial and philosophical support for your plan. Most importantly, it is about building cross-agency, cross-sector and inter-developmental partnerships rallied around a common goal – a triangulated planning solution that can be embraced by residents and visitors alike and that offers developmental benefits to the community.

So how does creative placemaking work in practice? When does it truly succeed, and when can it fall short? Tomorrow and Friday, we’ll visit two examples halfway around the world from each other to find out.