The Question All Creative Placemakers Should Ask

Arts and culture have a one-of-a-kind way of helping to shape and revitalize neighborhoods. But the process can have several drawbacks, including displacement. That’s why those involved with creative placemaking should always ask themselves a vital question: Who benefits?

Hot tub parklets are fine and dandy, but for whom are we building them? Credit: Paul Krueger on Flickr

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In a May blog post for the website Createquity, researcher Ian David Moss attempts to address some of the negative outcomes associated with the practice of creative placemaking. To do this, he uses a schematic of what he calls “The Artist Colonization Process” to break down the trajectory of a gentrifying neighborhood. The process starts with “artists move in” and ends with “developers take over space, pricing artists out of the market.”

His schematic made me wonder what happened to all the people who may have been living for decades in the community in which the “creative placemaking” experiment was underway. What happened to them when the artists moved in and the colonization process began?

To me, this is the crux of the problem: For whom are we trying to create benefit when implementing our creative placemaking strategies?

I believe that arts and culture have a significant, important, too often underutilized, one-of-a-kind way of helping to shape and revitalize previously distressed neighborhoods and communities. And while recent debate over creative placemaking has a bit about measurement and a bit about outcomes, I wish somebody would talk more about if the outcomes we’re aiming to achieve are actually the right ones to begin with (let alone how you would go about measuring them).

To start, here’s a popular definition of creative placemaking from an eponymous book:

In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.

Which leads me to the discussion on equity and creative placemaking. When we talk about creative placemaking and its role in increasing vibrancy and revitalizing neighborhoods, we need to ask much deeper questions and strive for much more explicit goals. Specifically, how is our creative placemaking benefiting low-income communities and communities of color?

I’ll begin building on that point by outlining what I mean by equity, because the criteria on which to judge our success should not only involve increasing the vibrancy of neighborhoods, but also achieving equity.

Here’s a great definition of equity by Susan Fainstein in her book The Just City:

Equity refers to a distribution of both material and nonmaterial benefits derived from public policy (I would add also other investments and strategies) that does not favor those who are already better off at the beginning. Further, it does not require that each person be treated the same but rather that treatment be appropriate. In this interpretation distributions that result from market activities are included; they are considered to be within the realm of public policy since the choice of leaving allocations to the market is a policy decision.

When it relates to creative placemaking, we need to add to the debate a focus on equity by always asking the question of who benefits from our investments, activities and strategies.

Revitalizing an old building, turning it into a theater and attracting new artists and audiences are all great outcomes. But if you can’t show me that a large percentage of these artists and audiences are from within the community, then I’m not so impressed. We might measure this by asking ticket buyers to give us their zip code. You might even ask the question who got hired to rebuild the theater and how did the economic impact benefit residents from within the community and not just those from elsewhere.

Here is the evaluation criteria for ArtPlace, a collaboration of national funders investing in creative placemaking:

  • Is art, art making or artists at the heart of the initiative?
  • Is it likely that the initiative will result in increased vibrancy?
  • Is the initiative integrated into a broader set of strategies to increase vibrancy?
  • Is the leadership and organizational capacity present to complete the initiative successfully?
  • Can the initiative demonstrate new understanding in the field?

If I were a grantmaker and had a pro-equity agenda, I might also use “Who benefits?” as a criterion, and favor proposals that create explicit benefit for residents of communities too often left behind in traditional revitalization efforts.

And the success of our strategies should be measured by their ability to create these types of equitable outcomes.

Here are the goals of the Our Town creative placemaking program of the National Endowment for the Arts:

  • Improve their quality of life.
  • Encourage creative activity.
  • Create community identity and a sense of place.
  • Revitalize local economies.

Among these, the NEA should add the question, “for whom?”

Who are we improving the quality of life for? Who is the community for which there is identity and a sense of place? Who benefits from a revitalized economy? We need to be more explicit about asking these questions.

Laura Zabel, executive director of Springboard for the Arts, wrote this recent article in which she describes one way to see and measure the impact of creative placemaking efforts:

artists –> love –> authenticity = places where people want to gather, visit & live

What I would add to the statement above (and similarly in different places to the ArtPlace guidelines and Our Town outcomes) is how can we be explicit about what we mean when we say “people.” Which people do we want to gather, visit and live in vibrant places? Is it just some people? Is it already well-off people? It is traditionally excluded people? Is it poor people? New people? People of color? Similarly, in the Moss piece I would want to see, in his theory of change frameworks/logic models, more explicit definitions of who is the targeted beneficiary of all their investments.

My hope in writing this is to push the conversation to add another layer in our analysis of what is creative placemaking and what are the goals it should be working to achieve in communities like mine (North Minneapolis) or yours.

Let’s define “who benefits” as a clear indicator of our success or failure. We need to be more purposeful, targeted and explicit about who our creative placemaking strategies are intended to benefit. And if we’re working in communities that are distressed, poor or have been historically populated by communities of color, then we need to make sure that whatever strategies we design, or investments we make, are creating benefit for them.

Let’s not assume that because we’re working in a place (generally) that it’s creating benefits for people (specifically). Too many years of community development efforts show us that people are situated differently in places, and thus benefit differently, or not at all, from strategies inside of a place.

We need to create an explicit pro-equity agenda to our creative placemaking efforts, be explicit about who benefits from the beginning, put it in our logic models and include it in our measurement.

And of course this question of who benefits is not limited to arts-related investments. It’s really an issue that all of us working on ways to build stronger, healthier communities should be willing to ask, over and over again.

Neeraj Mehta is a member of Next American City’s 2012 Vanguard class, and the research director at the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota. A version of this post originally appeared on his blog.

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Tags: gentrificationequityplacemaking

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