Sioux Arts Council

Putting the Arts to Work for City Resilience: Creative Placemaking

Editor’s Note: In this guest post, Director of Design Programs at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jason Schupbach introduces the concept of Creative Placemaking from the perspective of the arts, and goes over why the process is so important for making cities more resilient. 

I recently attended a major convening of community development and arts professionals where Ben Hecht from Living Cities said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “The science of how to do the technical parts of community development is well understood – how to build water infrastructure, housing units, transportation systems – but we as community development officials have forgotten about the ‘people’ part of the equation. How do we build places where people actually want to live their lives? How do we build strong social ties? The secret lies partly in the arts.”

Recognizing that social resilience is every bit as important as physical resilience in a community, we at the NEA call this work creative placemaking.

What is creative placemaking?

Creative placemaking seeks to help communities develop a stronger sense of identity, building on native cultural assets to create more cohesive, healthy, and resilient places. The deliberate integration of arts and culture into community development work brings arts organizations and artists to the table, helping to design land-use, transportation, economic development, education, housing, infrastructure, and public safety strategies.

Chattanooga Terrain Art Park. Samuel E. Burns, Ensia.

Creative placemaking practitioners use artistic interventions to bring new perspectives (beyond just aesthetics) to communities, sparking vitality and creating an environment conducive to new ideas, creativity, and social engagement. Artists can engage communities in a number of ways as Laura Zabel, executive director of Springboard for the Arts, describes here.

Creative placemaking activities like public art and festivals leverage existing community assets to foster interaction among community members, arts organizations, and artists. By emphasizing community strengths, these activities help to establish a more robust sense of community – like the distinct culture of music and food in New Orleans that connects people and helped the city to unite after the Katrina crisis.

Engaging with Communities: Examples of Creative Placemaking

We’ve found that incorporating artists and designers early on in the community planning process strengthens outreach and awareness of resilience issues with the citizenry. The city of Flint, MI was doing its first city plan in 50 years, and came to the NEA with a unique project to fund artist residencies in neighborhoods to involve theater, dance, and visual artists in planning, collecting data, and conducting their community meetings. Flint wanted to avoid boring public meetings, and artists helped bring actual people into the equation, giving them seats at the planning table.

Other projects use art to turn the city into a canvas that informs and reflects the impact of public behaviors. We funded a project in Indianapolis, USA, called Flow: Can You See the River. A collaboration of artists, community organizations, scientists, and city planners, “FLOW” engaged citizens through physical installations, an exhibition, and an interactive mapping tool. Artist Mary Miss created the city-wide public art project to reveal to citizens how their ordinary activities affect the future of the White River water system.

Mary Miss/City As Living Laboratory

We’re huge fans of the work of Portland, ME’s resident artist Marty Pottenger. After she observed the lack of attendance and diversity at the city’s public meetings, Marty worked with four neighborhood associations and a team of artists to encourage new relationships with residents who reflected the communities’ diversity. In addition, the group created artwork that celebrates those residents, challenges stereotypes, and increases economic vibrancy.

Shreveport Regional Arts Council

Successful use of creative placemaking requires making the people part of the resilience equation work. To do this, cities have to treat creatives with the same gravity afforded other community development assets and colleagues. We have seen that cities that that pay more attention to creative placemaking find their interventions have a more balanced, holistic approach that brings the projects to the very stakeholders they seek to benefit, truly promoting city resilience.

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