Creative Placemaking Changes Narrative About Cities

A few months ago, Denver dance company Wonderbound moved into an old used car dealership near the downtown core, a blighted property that was surrounded by three homeless missions and a notorious park crawling with drug dealers. Wonderbound’s mission is to transform the building into a hub for artists to rehearse and perform, changing the narrative of the downtrodden neighborhood in the process.

Wonderbound, along with partner organization Community Coordinating District No. 1, turned the building into what's now known as Junction Box. Passersby stop to watch dancers perform through large open garage doors and, according to Wonderbound's Artistic Director Garrett Ammon, foot traffic in the area has already increased.

“I'm seeing more people riding bikes or strolling from the Curtis Park neighborhood through this part of town to some of the restaurants,” says Ammon. “It's been an intersection in town that people avoid, but we're really seeing some changes.”

Junction Box was made possible in part by a $250,000 grant from ArtPlace America, a collaboration of national and regional funders that awarded $15.2 million in grants to creative placemaking projects across the U.S. this past May.

The project is part of a larger movement known as creative placemaking: the use of arts- and culture-based projects to revitalize neighborhoods and boost local economies. At its core, creative placemaking is about transforming vacant and underused properties into hubs of activity and prosperity by engaging artists and residents of the neighborhood.

Centers Of Community

ArtPlace, along with organizations such as Project for Public Spaces (PPS), the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and Artspace, have been working with cities, planning groups, developers, arts organizations and other stakeholders on placemaking initiatives for several years. Their collective impact is beginning to show.

According to a report issued by the NEA, artists account for three percent of the nation's workforce, and the cultural industries support close to five million jobs.

In 2011, Washington D.C.'s director of planning, Harriet Tregoning, used an Artplace grant to create temporary pop-up artist showcases in empty storefronts and lots. She says creative placemaking is now a permanent part of DC’s city planning process.

”Part of what we're learning is that we can temporarily activate those places and help local businesses get a start, help create new centers of community,” she says. “That temporary activity helps ensure that permanently good things will happen."

In DC, Tregoning says, the creative economy represents 10 percent of all jobs. The city suffers from a "Clark Kent Complex," she adds – it’s known for government, but it’s actually rolling in the arts. Creative placemaking is now helping rebrand the city.

This shift is perhaps most apparent in Michigan, which was hit first with the decline of auto manufacturing and then further by the Great Recession.

Yet cities such as Detroit has received more than $2 million in Artplace grants for projects ranging from revitalizing abandoned buildings to the recent REVOLVE Detroit project. Led by the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC), the initiative will "activate vacant storefronts with transformational businesses and art installations."

Susan Mosey, President of the University Cultural Center Association and a member of the Detroit Creative Corridor Center, says there are several reasons why placemaking is attractive to cities like Detroit. First, artists and creative ventures add value by creating economic opportunity.

Creative artists and businesses also tend to want to inhabit the interesting, historic properties critical to revitalizing local communities. And finally, placemaking impacts additional sectors and attracts likeminded businesses. One manufacturer, Shinola, prioritizes hiring students from Detroit’s arts college.

"It really brings in a lot of complementary activity into a neighborhood," says Mosey.

Making Connections

Placemaking is often at its best when it connects people and places, especially in pedestrian or transit corridors, or when it adds new ideas to a familiar place.

Ann Arbor and Detroit have started to become draws for artists due to the low cost of living and community-based initiatives that allow artists to make a community impact.

In Baltimore, the Transit Initiative was awarded a $200,000 ArtPlace grant to transform transit environments in three of the city’s arts and entertainment districts after Transit Initiative leaders Bill Gilmore and Randi Vega noticed a variety of challenges.

In one area, Highlandtown, there were significant conflicts between older citizens waiting for the bus and kids from nearby schools. In other areas, the transit stops are hubs of dead space that could be used to better connect local businesses to patrons.

Baltimore has been looking to how Europe handles transit issues with admiration. By inviting European artists with experience in these transit systems to come to Baltimore and work with local artists, Gilmore and Vega hope to bring new life to transit stops.

The project could also put the art scene quite literally on the map. "It’s become an opportunity to connect Baltimore to arts on an international level," Gilmore says.

These connectivity themes are consistent across the country. Pennsylvania has received more than $3 million in ArtPlace America grants since 2011, fostering more vibrant places , boosting local economies and making urban neighborhoods safer.

“Any place where you have foot traffic, there's an opportunity for placemaking,” says David Clayton, Program Manager of Breadboard at University City Science Center, which won an ArtPlace grant through the Department of Making and Doing.

DMD received $150,000 to activate a section of Market Street that is known as the Avenue of Technology. Four local art, design, and tech organizations that are part of DMD will bring art and activity to the corridor, increasing foot traffic and keeping visitors in the area. Arts-based workshops will help residents develop job skills.

In Pittsburgh, the City of Asylum also hopes to increase foot traffic in a soon-to-be redeveloped part of town, focusing on another corridor known as Sampsonia Way.

The organization offers residencies to writers seeking asylum from countries around the world. Now, a $300,000 grant will help expand its residencies and programming with temporary and permanent public artworks. Large-scale events will bring international and local talent together to help drive traffic to the area, says the program's Executive Director, Henry Reese, while also making the city more appealing to immigrants.

Origins Of placemaking

The term "creative placemaking" was coined north of the border in Toronto, Ontario, where the nonprofit Artscape has been turning old buildings into affordable artist housing and studios for more than a quarter century.

In 2012, Artscape's tenants conducted more than 2,000 performances, exhibitions and events across the city.

“There's an incredible impact on community vitality and activity, which of course attracts more activity to the neighborhood as a whole," says Pru Robey, Artscape's creative placemaking lab director, who has worked with American organizations to instigate placemaking best practices, and wrote Canada's only placemaking course
“You then see that multiplier effect start to happen ... our projects having a role in the wider regeneration and revitalization of neighborhoods. The economic impacts play out at multiple levels – from the individual artist, to the local community vitality and economic activity, to that wider impact on the transformation of our city.”

This is exactly what ArtPlace America looks for when awarding grants, emphasizing projects that strive for diversity and vibrancy. This year, ArtPlace received more than 1,200 grant applications. It was competitive, but always boils down to the same thing.

"It is really about how arts and culture can play a role in changing and advancing places," says Bridget Marquis, ArtPlace America's program director.

Outside Traditional Venues

St. Paul, Minnesota's Blue Ox artist group has a different idea for creative placemaking. Having grown up as mini-golf lovers in the working-class West 7th neighborhood, they realized there was a huge redevelopment opportunity for a 15-acre plot of land on the former Schmidt Brewery. They thought, what if we turned the historic site into a mini-golf park that would also function as a business and pump money back into the arts?

The idea landed them a $350,000 grant. They'll use the money to hire artists to design installation pieces for each hole, and contractors to complete infrastructure such as electric and sound. The historic site will be required to maintain a high level of landscaping so that it remains attractive and serves as a kind of urban park.

"One of the things that has always driven us is finding ways to bring the arts outside of the traditional venues it's always had," says Gabriel Shapiro, one of four members of the Blue Ox group. "One way is to make large public art like sculptures. If you put it into an interactive context like a mini golf course where the art itself becomes a feature of what you're there to do ... it’s no longer just about the game. You're actually interacting with art as you play ... It's re-contextualizing how we see art and how we see recreation."

For as much as creative placemaking is about communities and cities, it's also about supporting the millions of people who work in the cultural sector.

"For us as artists, it's changed our world too. It's completely changing our perceptions of what art can achieve," concludes Garrett Ammon of Wonderbound. "We're gaining just as much or more from the experience as anyone else in the community. That sharing of ideas, sharing of inspiration and possibility, that’s what drives us."

Sheena Lyonnais is a Toronto-based journalist and the Managing Editor of Yonge Street Media, an Issue Media Group publication. You can follow her on Twitter @SheenaLyonnais. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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