A number of cities across the U.S. are using arts and culture as a means to drive new development and population growth. From Austin and Miami to Portland and Seattle, street art scapes, hipster coffee houses, live music venues, and new museums and art galleries have fueled economic growth and spurred greater investment in a city.
The theory that art and culture can be used to influence metropolis growth is grounded in the theory of creative placemaking, an innovative concept that integrates social and cultural development, literally “making places” based on the culture and art of specific, mostly urban, neighborhoods. One successful example of creative placemaking is The Porch at 30th Street Station, a permanent project located just outside Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. This open space with beautiful plants provides seating, serves as a venue for performances, fitness classes and other events, and exists as a small yet harmonizing environment. Projects such as these are the purpose of creative placemaking: bringing personality to the neighborhoods and liveliness to the gray cityscape.
Creative placemaking is widely being discussed among a variety of scholars, as a way for communities to encourage residents locally while improving public areas. Interestingly, creative placemaking is dependent on a partnership between governments, private investors, and grants, organizations, artists and citizens. Because funders are the primary movers behind the creative placemaking agenda, the issue of grants for creative placemaking is particularly relevant.
A Scholarly Glance at Creative Placemaking
In a 2014 University of Pennsylvania report by Mark Stern, professor of social policy and history, Stern discusses the outcomes of creative placemaking, while touching upon arguments concerning placemaking’s influence on the neighborhoods and communities it encompasses. Measuring its impact on places and the people who live, work and visit them is critical with creative placemaking.
At first glance, there seems to be considerable controversy over the outcomes of creative placemaking. Stern reports that Ann Markusen, professor of urban and regional planning and public policy at the University of Minnesota, has been vocal in her argument against what she believes is a project doomed to fail. In her eyes, creative placemaking is a cloudy concept with data issues, and whose visible outcomes are imprecise and unreliable. Stern, while agreeing with Markusen that creative placemaking’s conceptual foundation needs work, disagrees with her pessimism towards the measurement of creative placemaking on communities. While Stern doesn’t share Markusen’s opinion that social experiments are the ideal way to comprehend the impact of the arts on communities, he is wary of her negativity towards placemaking’s ability to develop useful indicators of that impact. Stern asserts that, rather than ignore potential tensions within creative placemaking, it is best to acknowledge potential contradictions in its conceptual foundation.
Stern writes that there are three basic conceptual foundations of contemporary influence in creative placemaking which can be found in literature. The first is literature related to the importance of streetscapes, as found in the writings of social reformists Jane Jacobs and William Whyte’s backlash on modern architecture, and how important it is in a city environment to avoid “grayness” within what is usually the drab setting of urban streetscapes. By seeking meaning in placemaking literature such as theirs, the state of modern urban development has been remarkably redefined to one that reflects more energy and potential.
The second foundation in creative placemaking literature is the economic idea of undervalued urban resources. In several books on culture and the city, professor of sociology Sharon Zukin elaborates on how critical the arts are to influencing the value of urban buildings and neighborhoods: through installations, museums, and festivals the arts are intrinsic to encouraging entrepreneurial production by inspiring the public to creativity.
Finally, there is social capital, the idea that social networks can become assets, thus enhancing their social benefits. Stern mentions the writings of political scientist Robert Putnam, who argues that social capital plays an important role in ultimately creating more prosperous communities. To produce a positive outcome, these three fundamental strands are sought together as a whole to produce beneficial economic outcome.
Creative Placemaking and the Rise of the Creative Economy
Economic outcomes bring about the question of measurement and how to assess the impact of creative economic approaches, which tend to coincide with creative placemaking. Stern admits that the foundation of creative placemaking still needs work, and there have been a number of processes developed in order to understand its outcomes. One of these approaches is to measure economic impact duty. This involves estimating total additional value made by a group of cultural and arts investments in a neighborhood or region, but this causes problems because when reducing the arts solely to their economic impact, it is likely that the importance of the arts in a community will be lost.
Recently, there has been a focus on the creative economy and the creative class. In his writings, urban studies theorist Richard Florida argues that creative people, not large corporations, are the instigators of economic growth, and therefore cities should target creative classes, not large businesses. Focusing on creative classes has sparked the development of such concepts as the “gay district” in cities, which further attracts creatives. The downside of this approach is that the spotlight is usually on college-educated creatives, and is likely to distract from programs that benefit less prosperous or less “trendy” residents of a city. Stern writes that creative placemaking therefore may potentially support gentrification at the cost of social enhancement.
Creative placemaking has also been studied by the University of Pennsylvania’s Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP), which looked at how arts and culture impact urban areas. SIAP has found that the relationship between arts and culture has various social benefits relating to child welfare outcomes, reduced neighborhood conflict and improved community economic development.
SIAP notes that when different cultural resources — nonprofits, resident artists and the like – interact in a specific spot, it is defined as cultural ecology. UPenn has used this technique to develop quantitative indexes to estimate for small geographies in Philadelphia and uses this geographical information to link cultural data to other measures of social well-being, in order to investigate the arts’ social impact. SIAP concluded that, over time, neighborhoods with high concentrations of cultural assets were more likely to reflect social impacts such as declines in poverty, population growth, and improved housing markets. Recently, SIAP has started looking into the connections between cultural assets and social outcomes; through this, UPenn went on to look into morbidity, social stress, school effectiveness and personal security in the city of Philadelphia.
Interestingly, their analysis found that high-income neighborhoods enjoy more social connections than lower-income sections of the city. Despite this, social connections have more influence in low-income neighborhoods. UPenn’s research on culture as a component of social well-being is still in its developmental stages; and while there is a focus on how the arts can relieve the impact of economic inequality on low-income areas, the growth of inequality and its harm to cultural institutions cannot be overlooked either. SIAP has been able to document the effect of rising inequality on Philadelphia’s cultural sector, finding that the cultural resources are concentrated in better-off neighborhoods. The reason for this increased inequality points to a decline in cultural components in the low-income communities. Stern wonders whether, despite the impact of the partnership between art and culture on social well-being, particularly in disadvantaged areas, the arts can continue to relieve the effects of social injustice.
With regard to creative placemaking, SIAP has made clear some of the contributions the arts have had on social well-being, but has simultaneously shed light on significant challenges for cultural and urban policy at the hands of creative placemaking. SIAP has found that the cultural ecology of a neighborhood needs to be focused one type of asset. Another point is a multi-dimensional definition of social well-being, which provides a set of concepts that can be tested empirically, and allows the cultural sector to link its interests to social outcomes in other fields like public health and education.
The real challenge for creative placemaking is in how to incorporate its advantages into policy, and how to translate its concepts into grants-funding support. Stern warns that the gap between perceived cultural impact and the logistics of setting creative placemaking mechanisms in motion are the current challenges for those who wish to link placemaking to specific social benefits.
Artists, in turn, should consider the impact their work can have on creative placemaking initiatives. By investing in communities in their communities – living, working and perhaps educating their neighbors – their role in uplifting cities can be a definitive turning point for the population at large.