This past February, UNC School of Journalism students asked if I would be willing to be part of an Environmental Journalism class project. I said yes. In fact, I had just scheduled an interview with UNC's General Alumni Association Magazine and perhaps they can work together. I love the result. It really focuses on both the art and the science, over a lot of weighty information about coal ash. I also love the spirit that it captures, including the expression on Wade Brown's face in this opening shot. I always enjoy spending time with Dr. Kunigal Shivakumar and Wade, the scientists at A&T.
Creative Placemaking Summits are always an interesting bird. What will you learn? Will your questions get answered? What are your questions to begin with? After all, many of us are looking for answers to a question we haven’t asked. Something that Anne Koller (League of Creative Interventionists) touched on perfectly in her spoken word poem performed to close the Summit. For many of us, we know arts and culture can bring change. We know this. But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy road. In a way the Creative Placemaking Leadership Summits are a perfect place for us because not only do you get to meet fellow creative placemaking practitioners, but one of the many sessions offered just might be that question and even the answer you are looking for.
In 2015, ArtPlace began a partnership with PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity, to lead the research and documentation components of our Community Development Investments (CDI) program. Since then, PolicyLink has worked closely with ArtPlace staff, partners, and participating organizations in the CDI cohort to learn more about what happens when community development organizations incorporate arts and culture into their core work.
The Old Stone Mill Center Of Arts and Creative Engineering in Adams MA, was founded by Leni Fried and Mike Augspurger. Their mission is to create public space for use by the creative community, including a center for re-use of materials diverted from the waste stream; art spaces and a machine shop with equipment and tools available to those who cannot afford to fully outfit their own studios; and to provide space for community members to come together to learn and experiment in arts and technology.
Most nights, the streetlights that illuminate Ashland, Massachusetts, are a uniform white. They shine down on typical small-town things: families getting dinner on Main Street, kids bicycling home from each other’s houses. But for a month in the summer of 2016, nighttime Ashland looked a little different. The town hall and its parking lot were tinted in green. The area around the Historical Society was bathed in purple. Around twilight, a group of people wearing all white might have walked through, clutching blank maps and handfuls of crayons and following a man with a determined expression.
“Your designs are beautiful, but they are empty.” I stood there—stunned—in my faculty advisor’s office. I had never heard anyone give me that criticism. I didn’t know how to respond. I was too Canadian to storm out dramatically, but too shallow to cry. “You need to learn the science behind what you are designing, and make sure it works. Take some hydrology and geology courses. Make science beautiful.” Now I understood. And with my ego and emotions in check, I got to work.
The arts have always been a part of how we make our cities. In the 1890s New York City Municipal Arts Society delightfully declared, “To make us love our city, we must make our city lovely!” But even then, a debate ensued about the best approach. Would it be better to improve basic sanitation? Or would it require harnessing civic arts to foster deeper experiences of pride and attachment for citizens?
Creative placemaking has been an ongoing discussion in cities and towns across the country for several years, but where do planners sit in this dialogue? What role does a planner have in the development of a creative placemaking strategy? How can planners incorporate creative placemaking ideas into their projects? Or encourage communities to implement these kinds of projects? As a national leader and the professional association for planners, the American Planning Association knows that tools are needed to help planners to address these questions and more.
There’s a lot to love about creative placemaking. When urban planning and development initiatives position arts and culture on par with housing, transportation, and other human necessities, they are better poised to improve a community’s quality of life holistically. Yet what’s sometimes lost in all the excitement over ‘making’ a place is the fact that the place was already there: a place with people, spaces, and culture all its own. That’s why good placemaking projects—especially those happening in marginalized neighborhoods—start with preserving, strengthening, and representing the good things that already exist in it.
In the world of creative placemaking, we often find ourselves talking about housing in terms of “units.” Discussions frequently center around how many housing units a particular organization has built, or we may use the number of “units” available as a measure of success. But it’s important that our language doesn’t become distanced from the core of what we’re truly talking about: creating affordable homes for those who need them.