Community development has evolved significantly over the last decade. Comprehensive strategies are needed to address neighborhood challenges and build a healthy community, requiring much more than physical infrastructure such as housing or the provision of social services. We now know that building a sense of community, fostering citizenship, and creating both economic and social opportunities for all are imperative goals. Arts and culture enable innovative ways to do just that.
In 2000, while a college student, I spent the summer painting with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program in Feltonville. Even on those sweltering summer days, I knew that I was a part of something special, something bigger than the final product of the mural itself. The process of mural-making involved several weeks of community outreach to identify the subject for the mural. The actual painting presented an opportunity for youth from a summer jobs program to be compensated for their art work, and the beautification of the wall sparked the residents’ imagination about the future potential of their neighborhood. My experience with the Mural Arts Program was one of my first encounters with the power of arts and culture.
As communities face a range of challenges such as joblessness, lack of affordable housing, assuring public safety, equitable redevelopment, transportation access and vacancy; the arts can infuse new creative energy and spur new partnerships towards engaging those challenges. The arts can lead to neighborhood revitalization that serves the needs of both existing and future residents.
While many artists and cultural institutions have long been working in their backyards on collaborations with residents to cultivate community and a strong sense of place, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and foundation initiatives such as ArtPlaceAmerica popularized the term creative placemaking to explicitly describe this work. To the NEA, creative placemaking is when artists, arts organizations and community development practitioners deliberately integrate arts and culture into community revitalization work - placing arts at the table with land-use, transportation, economic development, education, housing, infrastructure and public safety strategies.
Investing in Creative Placemaking via Our Town
In 2011, the NEA began the Our Town program to invest in creative placemaking projects across the country. Over the past five years, NEA has invested $26 million to support 325 projects in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Projects supported by Our Town include a long list of activities such as creative asset mapping, affordable artist housing, community arts engagement, public space design, artist entrepreneurship, public art, design of cultural and community spaces, and cultural district planning - to name a few. While no two creative placemaking projects are the same, each responds to a specific community challenge or opportunity with an arts or cultural strategy.
Here are a few examples:
- In New Haven, Connecticut, Project Storefronts partnered with the city’s Economic Development Corporation to help secure space for artists and arts-related businesses in vacant storefronts in Ninth Square. This project provided new economic opportunity for local artists to test out their ideas in retail spaces, while also helping to activate and put eyes on a vacancy-ridden main street.
- The Seniors Partnering with Artists Citywide (SPARC) project in New York City was a partnership with the City’s Department of Aging to provide much-needed studio space in senior centers for artists. In exchange, artists led classes that engaged senior citizens in art making, delivering a much-needed community service.
- In California, Project Willowbrook was led by Los Angeles County Arts Commission, LA Commons and artist Rosten Woo to encourage civic participation through a mapping exercise that creatively documented the cultural assets of the community. Willowbrook residents were fatigued by traditional planning processes, but the artist-facilitated effort inspired new enthusiasm for articulating a community plan and vision for the future in a place that was rapidly changing.
Partnering with the Arts for Long-term Impact
Comprehensive community development is only possible when a wide range of partners lend their expertise to drive neighborhood revitalization. A cornerstone of the NEA Our Town program is the requirement for at least one partnership between the local government and a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization. However, in our years of supporting local creative placemaking work, those projects that have had the greatest impact have also had some of the broadest and most inclusive partnerships. Take for example, the Neighborhood Time Exchange Project led by People’s Emergency Center in partnership with the Mural Arts Program, Broken Lab and Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy.
Over the course of nine months, Neighborhood Time Exchange invited artists to take part in residencies in West Philadelphia. In exchange for free studio space and a stipend, artists were asked to collaborate and volunteer on community-identified projects. With this simple idea, partnerships blossomed. The Mantua Civic Association Enrichment Committee, New Bethlehem Baptist Church, Marsha Washington Elementary School and the St. Ignatius Nursing Home are just a few of the local organizations that embarked on new collaborations with neighborhood residents and resident artists to improve the community.
Some artist interventions were highly visible, such as the “Respect Your Block” signs that were beautifully designed and posted on a vacant lot. Others were activities that engaged youth in workshops or mentorships. Artist talents were also applied to creating a sensory room for students at the local elementary school as a play space for children with behavioral issues. The challenges posed to artists were each identified by leaders or residents in the community and led to new assets for the neighborhood to celebrate.
The foundation of any great social innovation relies on community trust and cross-sectoral collaboration built on relationships. Arts and culture can be that binding agent and spark to ignite new partnerships. Non-arts organizations are increasingly reaching out to the arts and cultural sector for support of their community development missions.
Recent philanthropic investments have also enabled community development partners on the ground to experiment with a variety of approaches. ArtPlaceAmerica’s launch of an $18 million Community Development Investments program awarded non-arts organizations with multi-year funding to integrate arts and cultural strategies into their core work. The Fairmount Park Conservancy, a public parks stewardship program in Philadelphia, is one of the six awardees looking to advance social and economic development by employing the arts in their delivery of park programming and services. Other finalists include everything from an affordable housing developer to a county sheriff’s office. These organizations are committed to harnessing the creative energy and talent in the community to drive revitalization.
Artists: One of Your Neighborhood’s Greatest Assets
In a cultural mecca like Philadelphia, there is no shortage of artistic energy and talent. Before embarking on your next project, set a place for artists at your table. You might just be surprised by the out-of-the-box thinking, creative facilitation, and design solutions that spring from artist engagement. Artists can amplify the voices of underserved or unreachable residents during a planning process. They thrive on pushing boundaries and provoking community progress. They are uniquely equipped to imagine what has not been imagined before and can help to establish new local economies. As all community development practitioners know, there is no quick or simple solution to revitalizing neighborhoods that have suffered from decades of disinvestment and distress. Fortunately, artists and creativity are a part of every neighborhood; assets that can play important roles in stimulating civic discourse and inspiring innovative approaches to community revitalization.
Jen Hughes is a program manager at the National Endowment for the Arts where she oversees the agency’s creative placemaking grant program, Our Town, as well as two leadership initiatives - the Mayors’ Institute on City Design and Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design. Jen serves as a resource member on the White House Council for Strong Cities Strong Communities and Promise Zones teams advising U.S. communities on arts, cultural and design strategies that drive economic and neighborhood revitalization. A Philly native, Jen holds an undergraduate degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and a Master of City Planning from the University of California, Berkeley.
Seventy-seven creative placemaking case studies are available on Exploring Our Town.