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.”