The Bridge, Bethelehem, PA, Credit: Paul Warchol

Five Ways to Engage the Arts in Resilience

Editor’s note: This piece is the second piece in our series by Jason Schupbach of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) looking at how the arts can help build resilient cities. It reviews five creative placemaking engagements in cities, based on projects supported by either the NEA’s Our Town program or ArtPlace America.

Artists and designers are important community assets, intimately attuned to their community’s unique context.They are present in almost every community, and can engage with a city in a multitude of ways to help it reach its resilience objectives – a practice called creative placemaking.

Artists can work to promote new citizen awareness, help to foster community cohesion, support city planning processes, and more. Here are five more examples of how communities can incorporate creative placemaking to address their specific resilience challenges.

1. Engage artists to rethink infrastructure.

The Fargo Project (Fargo, ND): The city’s planning office is working with environmental artist Jackie Brookner to help residents rethink a network of drainage basins that were installed after the Red River Flood of 2000 to help manage storm flooding. Through a participatory public art process, they are inviting the community to reimagine this disruptive infrastructure and to build a positive relationship between citizens and with the watersheds that once physically divided their communities.

Drainage basins divide communities and spaces; Credit, The Fargo Project

Engaging the community to plan; Credit The Fargo Project

2. Use public art, public space, and cultural facilities to build community cohesion.

The Bridge (Bethlehem, PA): The SteelStacks project has transformed the abandoned Bethlehem Steel plant into a center for arts and culture. Today, outdoor and indoor performing arts facilities bring in two million people a year. To help change local perceptions of the site and represent the history and spirit of the community, Elena Colombo created “The Bridge,” a piece of public art made of steel and fire.

Pennsylvania’s steel produciton closed down in 1995; Credit: Ryan Hulvat, ArtsQuest

The Bridge“; Credit: Mark Demko

People enjoying new art; Credit: Mark Demko

3. Use graphic design as a community visioning tool.

Design/Relief (New York, NY): With ArtPlace America funding, AIGA launched Design/Relief to imagine futures for three neighborhoods recovering from Superstorm Sandy. Through a series of community events, each design team worked with a community to help establish a sense of place and identity. The Red Hook (Brooklyn) team created a digital bulletin board to increase access to essential resilience information. The Rockaway (Queens) team conducted and recorded more than 100 interviews with residents to build a narrative of the neighborhood’s spirit which was displayed on posters and quotations stenciled on sidewalks throughout the neighborhood. The South Street Seaport (Manhattan) team held audio tours and created an interactive graphic installation that emphasized the need for and important of social connections in resilience.

4. Map cultural assets to truly understand your community before planning starts.

Project Willowbrook (Los Angeles County, CA): The Los Angeles County Arts Commission conducted a deep investigation into the cultural life of the Willowbrook neighborhood to develop an arts-related asset map and visioning document. They used this information to ensure the community’s spirit was reflected in the county’s ongoing capital and infrastructure improvements.

Mapping Willowbrook’s cultural assets; Credit: Los Angeles County Arts Commission

LA Mural; Credit: Los Angeles County Arts Commission

West African Dance JAM; Credit: Los Angeles County Arts Commission

5. Urban gardening + Folk arts = new entrepreneurial activities

Grenada Street Folk Garden (Jackson, MS): The Cooperative Community of New West Jackson is working to counteract blight and population decline by acquiring abandoned properties and rehabilitating them into neighborhood resources. With the help of residents, they seek to transform, engage, and empower the community. Through an ArtPlace America grant, designers are merging permaculture principles – a more holistic and integrated approach to agriculture –  with an African American folk art aesthetic to transform one property into an innovatively landscaped folk garden/urban farm where the residents can gather and work together to build a stronger sense of community.

To see more examples and insights from these kinds of projects – please visit the Exploring Our Town storybook.