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Places, Everyone!

Field Weave (Image 1 of 10)

The Wisconsin-based Wormfarm Institute uses art to draw attention to rural spaces and sustainable lifestyles. “Field Weave” by Randy Walker was among the works featured at Wormfarm’s Fermentation Fest and Farm/Art Dtour, which celebrates “live culture in all its forms, from … music to sauerkraut,” in 2011.

Photo by Ann Foley

Roadside culture stand (Image 2 of 10)

“Get your culture here!” Artist Peter Flanary’s creatively configured roadside stands, commissioned by the Wormfarm Institute, offer food for body, mind and spirit. This stand promoted local goods and food at the institute’s 2011 Fermentation Fest.

Photo by Ann Foley

Black Cinema House (Image 3 of 10)

Led by artist and musician Theaster Gates, the not-for-profit Rebuild Foundation transformed an abandoned building on the South Side of Chicago into a film-focused gathering place. Using salvaged wood from decommissioned factories, the redo brought fresh life to objects, spaces and the people who use them to share old ideas and create new ones.

Photo by Sara Pooley

Focus on film (Image 4 of 10)

The Black Cinema House screens films and hosts discussions focused on the people of the African diaspora. Neighborhood youth are encouraged to take video classes offered by the cinema house as a way to learn to articulate and share their own stories in relationship to the broader community.

Photo by Sara Pooley

Garden/Kitchen workshop (Image 5 of 10)

Cornerstone Theater Company’s Hunger Cycle presents plays with food and hunger themes in unconventional venues, connecting community members with food issues and local food sources. Garden/Kitchen workshops bring together community members from various Hunger Cycle productions. At this Garden/Kitchen workshop at the Native Plant Garden in the Los Angeles State Historic Park, participants learned about working with native plants and ended the night with a bonfire.

Photo by Jose Zárate

Act of faith (Image 6 of 10)

Written by Sigrid Gilmer, directed by Shishir Kurup, and inspired by the community of South Los Angeles and those fighting for sustainable and healthful food choices, Cornerstone Theater Company’s Hunger Cycle play “SEED: A Weird Act of Faith” follows a neighborhood struggling to grow greens amid concrete.

Photo by Kevin Michael Campbell

Cultural living room (Image 7 of 10)

The newly designed Kresge Court in the Detroit Institute of Art offers a relaxed area among grand architecture, encouraging visitors to engage in informal meetings, socialize or just relax with a book. Special emphasis is being placed on the community around the DIA, with Kresge Court serving as a hub for the area as it transitions into a walkable neighborhood. “The new Kresge Court, the ‘Cultural Living Room,’ invites the community in to take ownership of this historic public space. It’s an important next step for Midtown in building the mix of activities and uses that create a walkable, vibrant neighborhood,” said Jeremy Nowak, interim director of ArtPlace America, in a press release about the opening. Photo by Michelle and Chris Gerard

Welcoming spaces (Image 8 of 10)

“Meaningful urban living demands vibrant options for people: places where they can access welcoming spaces for creative exchange, thoughtful reflection and interpersonal connection.” — Bradford Frost, a Wayne State University Detroit Revitalization fellow and special assistant for community and economic development at the Detroit Institute of Art. Photo by Michelle and Chris Gerard

Zero-waste table (Image 9 of 10)

The Chapel Hill, N.C.–based nonprofit Art-Force Incorporated pairs artists with businesses and institutions to reimagine and encourage economic development in distressed areas by placing artists in residence at manufacturing plants to create products conceived and designed by the artist. In one such pairing, designers Chandra Cox and Susan Cannon partnered with WST Design Group, a subsidiary of North Carolina manufacturer WST Industries, to create zero-waste metal tables. The metal panels from which the M + Modern Plus Collection were cut will be used as a permanent art installation (next image) in the city of Sanford, N.C.

Photo courtesy of Art-Force

Allied art (Image 10 of 10)

These art installations, which will appear in downtown Sanford, N.C., are actually metal sheets out of which the M + Modern Plus Collection of zero-waste metal tables (previous image) were taken, leaving patterned cutouts. The furniture collection and art installation were organized by Art-Force Incorporated, a nonprofit organization that use alliances between artists and organizations to encourage unique economic development opportunities.

Photo courtesy of Art-Force


It’s an idea so compelling that six banks, more than a dozen major foundations and a handful of federal agencies agreed to work together to make it happen. More than $26 million in grants have gone to 46 communities across the country in support of it over the past three years. A consortium called ArtPlace, created to manage the relationships and resources involved in the effort, has an additional $12 million loan fund at the ready to support the continued growth of existing projects.

What could inspire this level of commitment and collaboration? Something you may have never heard of — creative placemaking.

While there is no single definition of what it is, ArtPlace describes creative placemaking as “art, culture and creativity expressed powerfully through place” in an attempt to “create vibrant communities.” Some argue it’s a means for creating more sustainable communities, too.

Carol Coletta, who recently stepped down as director of ArtPlace to take a leadership role at the Knight Foundation, points out that in many cases, creative placemaking efforts naturally dovetail with sustainable practices. “You’re not using new resources, you’re reinvesting in existing infrastructure,” she says, “and you’re probably not using up new land.”

Case in point: the ArtPlace-funded Black Cinema House, a project of Chicago-based artist and urban planner Theaster Gates. Gates transformed an abandoned house on Chicago’s South Side into a mixed-used space for film- and media-based artists of color using recycled timber from closed Chicago factories to reinvent the deteriorating structure. Drawing on undervalued cultural and material resources and giving them new life, Gates’ project demonstrates the natural affinity between creative placemaking and sustainability.

There are rural examples, too. Rooted in the same Wisconsin soil where environmental icon Aldo Leopold made his famous observations about the natural world, Wormfarm Institute’s annual Fermentation Fest and Farm/Art DTour uses art to spark interest and raise awareness of the value of rural spaces and sustainable practices. The fest at the ArtPlace-funded working farm celebrates “live culture in all its forms from dance to yogurt, music to sauerkraut.” “We believe the emotional power of the arts brings to the sustainability conversation a complexity and context the subject requires,” says Donna Neuwirth, Wormfarm’s executive director.

The range of projects that fall under the umbrella of creative placemaking and the use of unconventional metrics such as “vibrancy” can make it difficult to pin down precise goals and specify outcomes. But the experimental tone is largely by design, according to creative placemaking maven Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, lead at Metris Arts Consulting in Pennsylvania. Creative placemaking represents a new way of thinking about the role of arts and artists in public life, emphasizing shared value and deep reciprocity rather than the intrinsic value of the arts or the notion of a creative class that drives economic development.

Ed Lebow, the director of the Public Art Program of the Office of Arts and Culture in Phoenix, Ariz., traces the roots of creative placemaking back to the post-WWII era, when rapid development sparked a growing concern for quality of life and more appealing public spaces. “Placemaking is a relatively new term for a very old practice,” he says. Phoenix began bringing artists to the table decades ago, embedding them in discussions about infrastructure with planners, engineers, architects and even politicians, and the city’s investment in creative placemaking as a development strategy has made it a case study in how to put theory into practice. Artists tend to “ask impertinent questions,” Lebow says, and challenge assumptions about how things should look and work.

While not all placemaking is explicitly concerned with the environment, for Lebow and others in the vanguard of the movement, the connection is implicit. “You need your infrastructure to do more than one thing. If you get more function out of a space you potentially get more return on your investment,” he says. “Economic, aesthetic and environmental sustainability are linked. The more communities understand that, the more it changes the way we view public design.”

The images presented here depict a variety of ArtPlace-funded creative placemaking initiatives with environmental dimensions.  View Ensia homepage

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