The Reinvestment Fund

Funding Received: 2011
Philadelphia, PA
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
April 24, 2012

CultureBlocks is a collaboration between The Reinvestment Fund (TRF), the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture, and Creative Economy (OACCE), and the University of Pennsylvania Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP). Its purpose is to develop a web-based tool for displaying Philadelphia’s cultural assets in ways that is useful to artists and cultural organizations, public officials, philanthropies, development professionals, and the general public. In addition, the collaboration is analyzing the ways in which the arts connect to other dimensions of social well-being in Philadelphia.

ArtPlace asked Mark Stern of SIAP what he thinks are the three keys to creative placemaking. Here are his thoughts:

SIAP views creative placemaking as primarily a bottom-up process in which artists, cultural organizations, commercial firms, and cultural participants focus their efforts in particular neighborhoods. We use the term “natural” cultural district to connote that these processes begin at the grassroots, rather than being imposed on a neighborhood from outside. “Natural,” however, can be misleading, because these districts are only successful thanks to the concerted efforts of local residents and workers and their ability to link their neighborhood to the rest of the city and metropolitan area.

Our research has demonstrated three important contributors to successful cultural clusters.

1. Geography matters. “Natural” cultural districts are most likely to emerge in neighborhoods near, but not in, downtowns. They need to be close enough to regional centers so that they can benefit from density and transit, but not so close that they have to compete for space with more profitable businesses.

2. Space matters. We’ve discovered that the housing market in these districts has a unique set of characteristics. Generally speaking, as neighborhoods become more affluent, the percent of renters drops and the percent of owner-occupied dwellings increases. In “natural” cultural districts, this shift to owner-occupancy is slower. That is, they have more rental housing than their overall socio-economic status would predict. Obviously, these characteristics encourage the flows of people and activity that sustain the vibrancy of these districts.

3. Diversity matters. Over the years we’ve discovered that multiple forms of diversity characterize creative places. Years ago, we discovered by chance that concentrations of cultural assets were associated with higher than average poverty and higher numbers of professionals and college-educated residents. We call these pov-prof neighborhoods. “Natural” cultural districts are also more likely to be ethnically diverse than other parts of the city. Finally, we’ve identified a household dimension to diversity. These districts are more likely to have concentrations of young adults and what the Census Bureau characterizes as “non-family households” (persons living alone, roommates, “persons of the opposite sex sharing living quarters” or POSSL-Q’s, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender couples). These different flows of diversity reinforce and cross-cut one another, encouraging innovation, tolerance, and sometimes conflict.

Many years ago, the urbanist Jane Jacobs noted the importance of diversity for successful urban places. Yet, she worried, as well, about what she called the “self destruction of diversity.” Multi-dimensional diversity promotes our most successful neighborhoods, but their very success increases competition for space and uses. Ultimately, the most profitable businesses and well-off residents tend to drive out the very diversity that made the district successful.

The arts are a critical force for promoting urban vibrancy, but without wise public policies, the vibrancy we see in many “natural” cultural districts today may disappear tomorrow. Thus, as we celebrate the positive aspects of creative placemaking, we need to treat these districts as vulnerable habitats that need wise stewardship if they are to flourish.