"Creative Placemaking? What is it That You Do?"

July 23, 2015

By: Jamie Bennett, Executive Director

I am just back from a summer visit to see my grandmother and extended family in Cleveland, OH. As aunts, uncles, cousins, and extended family paraded through her house, I kept hearing versions of the same questions: “What is it you do? Creative placemaking? What is that?” (To which Grandma would inevitably respond, “I don’t know what it is he does, but we’re very proud of him.”) 

While the community of colleagues who are deeply connected with our work at ArtPlace America keeps growing, that “what is creative placemaking” question is one that I continue to answer as I meet with mayors, artists, funders, and community organizers all around the country.

This is not all that surprising, since it was just five years ago that Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa (Nicodemus) wrote Creative Placemaking, the white paper that first brought the phrase to American communities via The Mayors’ Institute on City Design.

Shortly thereafter, inspired by both that publication and the National Endowment for the Arts’ subsequent Our Town grantmaking, ArtPlace America was born as a coalition of foundations, federal agencies, and banks came together, united in the belief that artists and arts organizations could literally shape the social, physical, and economic characters of their communities.

The foundation presidents selected Carol Coletta as ArtPlace’s founding director, and Carol set off to talk with anyone who would listen about how the arts could improve the quality of a place through social offerings and aesthetics that positively impacted that place’s people, activities, and values.

Over three years, Carol took this brand new phrase and made it a real enough thing that The Kresge Foundation embraced creative placemaking as a framework for its grantmaking, as did Connecticut’s Department of Economic and Community Development. Universities created classes  on the subject, and ArtPlace received some 4,000 applications for creative placemaking projects proposed by communities of all sizes across the United States.

When Carol got the opportunity to lead community and national initiatives for the Knight Foundation, ArtPlace’s leadership had  a chance to look back over its three years of grantmaking to see what themes and issues were emerging and how the practice was evolving.

They went through a strategic planning process that ultimately reframed ArtPlace as a ten-year fund, dedicated to repositioning art and culture as a core sector of community planning and development by investing in, researching, and connecting those who lead and execute creative placemaking projects.

We are talking about community planning and development that is human-centric, comprehensive, and locally informed. 

As I have travelled the country, it has become clear to me that anyone who has studied urban planning, read The Death and Life of Great American Cities, or is otherwise familiar with the work of Jane Jacobs, Holly White, and their contemporaries, hears the “placemaking” half of the phrase and instantly understands that we are talking about community planning and development that is human-centric, comprehensive, and locally informed. The “creative” simply invites artists and arts organizations to join their neighbors in shaping communities’ futures.

Those who do not share those reference points hear the “creative” half of the phrase and assume that we are investing in ill-conceived creative class strategies that believe that mayors across the country are in competition for a limited number of shiny, happy people who move constantly from city to city, leaving Starbucks, bicycles, and gay couples in their wake.

Or worse, they hear “placemaking” as ominously colonial, that creative placemakers are interested in “discovering” places and treating them as tabulae rasae to be “made” from scratch.


Neither could be further from what we are doing. We essentially believe that a creative placemaking project needs to have four basic parts:

  • First, the work needs to be ultimately place-based, meaning that there is a group of people who live and work in the same place. It can be a block, a neighborhood, a town, a city, or a region, but you need to be able to draw a circle around it on a map.
  • Next, you need to talk about the community conditions for all of the people who live in that place and identify some community development change that that group of people would like to see: a problem with housing that needs to be fixed; an opportunity with a new transportation infrastructure that needs to be seized; a problematic narrative around public safety that needs to be changed. (There are ten categories of community development changes that we currently track.)
  • Third is when the “creative” comes into play: how can artists, arts organizations, or arts activity help achieve the change that has been articulated for this group of people?
  • And, finally, since these are projects that explicitly set out to make a change, there needs to be a way of knowing whether the change has happened. Some people call this “project evaluation.” We simply say it is important to know when you can stop doing something, cross it off your list, and move on to the next thing.


I often use Springboard for the Arts’ Irrigate project to help people understand how these four steps play out in real life.

St. Paul, MN was constructing a new light rail, and during the two years of construction, it was a pain. If you lived along the construction corridor, it was messy, noisy, and inconvenient. Worse, if you owned a business there, it was all of those things, and you were losing customers on top of that as parking disappeared and traffic snarled.

So Springboard mobilized and trained 600 local artists, who then set out to partner with local businesses and organizations. None of the artists were asked to change their artistic practice, they were simply invited to share their art along the construction corridor: visual art installations, concerts, interactive workshops, dance performances – in total these artists produced 150 events over a two-year period, changing the narrative of the neighborhood from a place to be avoided to a vibrant destination.

How did they know that that had happened? They tracked the 30 million positive media impressions that these arts events produced. No longer was this a neighborhood known for traffic jams; instead it became the cool place to go on a Friday night. 

And, perhaps, the biggest benefit was for the transit project itself. Rather than teach people to avoid the neighborhood over the two years of construction, Irrigate filled the corridor with activity, creating demand for people to be able to get to and from the neighborhood. When the Green Line opened, people were already in the habit of coming and going and were thrilled to have another option for doing so.

Last week, we announced $10 million in new investments in 38 projects from Kivalina, AK all the way across to Miami, FL that are addressing agriculture and food systems, environment and open space, youth and education, and all of the other issue areas our communities confront.

In each of these projects, artists and arts organizations are working with other members of their communities to help build better futures. And that’s really all creative placemaking is.

I hope Grandma is proud.