Unpacking the Matrix 6/10: Transportation

September 4, 2015

By: ArtPlace America

Those who have been following ArtPlace’s progress closely know that we talk about our work as investing in arts-based strategies to help achieve place-based outcomes in order to reposition arts and culture as a core sector of community planning and development.  In order to make sure that we are covering the entire field of community planning and development, we have identified ten sectors that generally cover that terrain.

At our annual Grantee Summit that we hosted in Philadelphia in May, we organized our breakout sessions around these ten sectors, featuring our grantees working in those areas in conversation with an expert from the field.  This post is the sixth in a ten-part series continuing those conversations, and it focuses on Transportation.

Below is a summary of a conversation between Rochelle Carpenter (Deputy Outreach Director for Transportation for America in Nashville, TN) and Laura Zabel (Executive Director of Springboard for the Arts in St. Paul, MN).

As we've continued unpacking the ArtPlace matrix, a pattern has emerged: each sector intersects with and is impacted by several others. Transportation (the mechanisms by which citizens navigate their community including sidewalks, public transit, traffic intersections, bike lanes, etc) is no exception.

Rochelle Carpenter, who leads outreach for Transportation for America in Nashville, TN, began by pointing out that the transportation systems people have available to them can be a "major determinant" in the opportunities people are able to access. Since transportation systems have the ability to impact everything from public health (e.g. through the provision of pedestrian infrastructure) to the economic viability of a city (e.g. by dictating traffic patterns), it's important that public officials, community organizers, and the citizenry at large come together to communicate and work toward transportation systems that enable the success and agency of their communities—and the arts can be a key contributor.

Through her work with Irrigate—an initiative that brought artists and business owners together to mitigate disruption during the construction of the Green Line Light Rail Transit route in St. Paul/Minneapolis, MN—Laura Zabel focused squarely on the intersection between the arts and transportation.  Over a three-year period, Irrigate worked with more than 600 artists on 180 creative placemaking projects that helped reshape the narrative of what was happening along the Green Line.  Through projects ranging from chalked poetry and dance performances to innovative landscaping and public art, Irrigate generated more than 50 million positive media impressions of an area that otherwise would have had a predominately negative public narrative.

According to Rochelle and Laura, there are many different creative placemaking strategies that can be deployed to empower citizens, encourage the agency of communities in the midst of transportation projects, and mitigate the challenges of construction.  Here are a few highlights from the conversation.

Harness the disruption that transportation infrastructure overhauls create
Changes to transportation infrastructure are among the most visible and large-scale undertakings within communities, and can thus create significant opportunities.  Laura stated, "People are much more willing to move forward and try new things when there is a huge disruption than they would be normally." Taking advantage of these opportunities allows creative placemaking practitioners to introduce new ideas while offering a more level playing field for all members of a community to envision themselves in new roles.

Laura was able to demonstrate the power of this, “An organizer that we worked with quite a bit said that before he worked with artists, he used to think his job was to keep bad things from happening – whether that was inequitable policies or development. Through working with artists, he told us he came to see that he can also do productive, proactive, forward-thinking things. Things that build power in his neighborhood and make things happen as well as stop bad things from happening.”

Turn to the arts for robust community engagement
Engaging citizens in productive discussion about the unfolding of transportation projects has proven challenging in the past. Historically, public meetings between organizers, public officials and community members have been unengaging, too complex for the public to understand, or a box-checking exercise without the desire for genuine public input into how transportation projects proceed.

“In many cities, when they built the interstate highway it went right through the heart of many primarily African-American neighborhoods and other neighborhoods that were considered expendable… and there wasn’t much attention paid to what the consequences of doing that would be. I think we’ve learned from that mistake,” Laura explained. “Policy-makers and transit officials recognize that that’s not the right way to do things and we don’t end up with transit that really benefits the community we’re trying to serve. The gap between that recognition and knowing how to engage well [leaves] this huge opportunity for arts and culture, for creative placemaking to bridge what I see as a pretty commonly accepted desire to have authentic, real input and engagement with the community.”

Invest in existing businesses before focusing on attracting new investments
In their forthcoming resource titled “Attracting Rides, Attracting Pride: An Omnibus of Creative Placemaking in Transportation”, Transportation for America notes that creating partnerships with existing businesses during the construction process can not only increase local buy-in to future projects–it can often reduce costly opposition. Supporting inclusive economic development also helps to preserve the authentic culture of individual communities and engender positive feelings towards the transit project in general.

This played out in St. Paul where, according to the city’s former Marketing Director, many business owners saw a boost in revenue during Irrigate and the community felt like it was part of the development.  Rochelle noted, "Creative placemaking can be a powerful tool for making sure the existing community is reflected in whatever investment comes later or whatever new development comes as a result of that transit."  This even applied to the Green Line itself as the community successfully rallied to add three additional stops that helped boost access to minority-owned businesses and according to Rochelle also impacted transportation policy at a federal level.

Our major takeaway is that the arts and transportation sectors stand to gain significantly from increased collaboration, and a combination of new inroads and more formal investigation of existing practices would be useful.  Laura mentioned that Irrigate intentionally worked paralell to the light rail path and project, rather than directly on the development parcels or as a formal part of the new amenity's construction.  Irrigate as a public-private partnership had great results, but it begs the question of what it might take for creative placemaking practices to become an official part of a $1 billion investment like the Green Line, rather than an external complement.  What do you think?  Have you seen other initiatives that help showcase how the arts can support transportation undertakings?  Are there key pieces to this equation that could benefit from increased focus?  As always, we look forward to your comments.