Building a Better Understanding of Creative Placemaking

In the past two weeks, there’s been considerable discussion on the Internet and elsewhere about the merits and methods of creative placemaking. At ArtPlace this is exactly the kind of conversation we want to see happen. There are important questions that need to be addressed about creative placemaking: What is it that it takes to build great places? What role can arts and artists play in this process? How do we know when we’ve succeeded or at least made progress in the right direction?

ArtPlace aims to contribute to this conversation in a couple of ways. First, ArtPlace is a venture investor: with our grant funding, we aim to try a number of things and hope to learn from the experience. And second, we’ve commissioned research to develop a new set of Vibrancy Indicators to be able to better define and measure neighborhood change.

Our hope is that the projects we fund and the indicators we produce will help generate new information and new interest in creative placemaking.

But we also want to make one thing abundantly clear: We’re keen believers in the intrinsic merits of art investments. Our view is that increasing vibrancy and accelerating revitalization are additional reasons to invest in the arts. They are by no means the only reason.

ArtPlace keenly recognizes that there are many more worthy artistic endeavors than it can possibly fund.

Our interest, then, is in bolstering the rationale for arts investment by developing a better understanding of what kinds of projects and what kinds of conditions need to be present for arts to play a catalytic role in promoting community revitalization.

Consequently, the purpose of our vibrancy metrics is not to pronounce some projects “successes” and other projects “failures” but rather to learn more about the characteristics of the projects and community context in which they take place which leads to or at least seems associated with improved places.

Obviously, the process of community change and revitalization is a complex one. We have no illusions about proving cause-and-effect relationships for individual projects. We hope that by looking at an entire portfolio of projects and comparing the evolution of their surrounding neighborhoods with other neighborhoods we can make some reasonable inferences about the conditions and interventions that seem to be associated with successful creative placemaking efforts.

Ultimately, our hope is to show that a variety of actions and investors–not just those sponsored or supported by ArtPlace–can help trigger or accelerate the process of creative placemaking.

As the efforts of Laura Zabel and Ian David Moss show, its possible to construct a wide range of logic models that describe the process by which creative placemaking occurs. The models can either be Spartan (Laura) or elaborate (Ian). They arguably all have their merits and aptly describe the process as it occurs for some projects in some places. But we suspect that no one logic model captures all of the possible ways in which creative placemaking might unfold, nor does any one model fully reflect all of the variables that might hinder or propitiate placemaking. Such models can be useful for clarifying our thinking, but ultimately they are illustrative and partial rather than exhaustive and complete. No one has offered a grand unified theory of creative placemaking that will rule in some projects and rule out others.

Definitive proof of cause and effect relationships for creative placemaking projects is beyond the reach not only of ArtPlace but of most arts investors. As Harvard economist Ed Glaeser observed at this month’s Brookings conference on Arts and New Growth theory, we would need controlled, random-selection experiments to generate that kind of evidence, and even then it might apply only to portions of the logic model.

A critical limitation of elaborate logic models of the style developed by Moss is that it is nearly impossible to quantify or measure all of the different factors and relationships proposed. While many of the asserted relationships are plausible (arts instruction is available in schools —> parents and children are more interested in the arts), almost none are measured in practice. Many – if not most – of the variables (“arts participants connect with each other” and “people visit cultural clusters from elsewhere”, for example) could only be gauged imprecisely at great expense or are not susceptible of measurement at all. Multiply this problem by the 50 variables the model uses and the dozens of relationships it asserts, and it’s clear that it is beyond anyone’s ability to actually prove or disprove the model for even a single metropolitan area, much less the nation.

In addition, as several of the papers presented at the Brookings Institution conference on Arts and New Growth Theory earlier this month implied, it may be futile to try to separate cause and effect. As several of the logic models suggest, the arrows of causation point in both directions: The arts contribute to community vitality, and community vitality supports and stimulates the arts. We should be terribly surprised if it were any other way. If we believe that the arts are embedded in and reflective of the strength and character of the community, if we believe that the production and consumption of art is a social process, then it seems logical that we could not fully disentangle cause and effect. We would hardly expect art to flourish or creative placemaking to proceed in an environment that was either sterile or hostile.

At ArtPlace, our approach is purposely experimental, pragmatic and iterative. By funding a series of projects and observing, measuring and publicizing their results, we hope to fuel more interest as well as discussion and debate about creative placemaking.

In the end, we expect that there are quite a lot of different possible recipes (and behind these recipes, different models) for stimulating creative placemaking. Our theory of change is that art can be a trigger or accelerant for this process, especially when artists are explicitly called upon to think about how their work can play this role.

In the absence of clear measures of outcomes, it is likely that the discussion of the connections between arts and placemaking will continue to be more contentious and less illuminating than it ought to be. At ArtPlace, we’re hopeful that our projects and our Vibrancy Indicators will shed additional light on creative placemaking to the benefit of both the arts and the nation’s communities.

Participating Foundations

Barr Foundation
Bloomberg Philanthropies
Ford Foundation
The James Irvine Foundation
Knight Foundation
The Kresge Foundation
The McKnight Foundation
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
William Penn Foundation
Rasmuson Foundation
The Rockefeller Foundation
The Surdna Foundation