Placemaking Revolution: the powerful role of ephemera and the arts in our cities

Renovation of Black Cinema House in Chicago by Rebuild Foundation

Renovation of Black Cinema House in Chicago by Rebuild Foundation

“How can art play a role in shaping cities?” Dennis Scholl, VP for the arts at the Knight Foundation, and Carol Coletta, director of ArtPlace, visited the GSD in early October to speak about a radical shift in the function of arts in cities. Jim Lasko (LF 2013), director of Redmoon theatre in Chicago, moderated the discussion.

ArtPlace, a collaboration of foundations, banks and federal agencies – including the National Endowment for the Arts - invests in “creative placemaking,” arts and culture that promote community vibrancy and diversity. The investments are guided by a 2008 study by the Knight Foundation, “Soul of the Community,” which asked 43,000 people in 26 communities, “What attaches you to your community?” On the results, Scholl reflected, “I was shocked. We assumed that economic activity drove attachment to a place. The answers to the ‘Soul Poll’ weren’t the obvious.”

The study found that three main qualities attach people to place. Openness (how welcoming a place is) and the area’s aesthetics (its physical beauty and green spaces) are important. And in all 26 communities, the most crucial factor was the availability of social offerings, such as arts and cultural venues and meeting places.

With these results, the Knight Foundation challenged major funders of the arts, “What is it that we can do together that we can’t do apart?” The idea of "placemaking” was born.

Placemaking, according to Scholl, is inherently local—an "organic bubbling at the local level.” Theaster Gates (LF 2011) is one recipient of an ArtPlace grant. An artist, activist and urban planner, Gates leads the Rebuild Foundation, which has repurposed two abandoned buildings in Chicago’s South Side into flexible venues for film and arts events. The local community has come pouring in.

Coletta measures placemaking by the extent to which it generates vibrancy and diversity. Vibrancy is the feeling of energy, activity and life in a place, with observable indicators like jobs created and increase in population density. By diversity, Coletta said, "we mean racial diversity of course, but then economic diversity is also important.”

Placemaking arguably has impact within the city, from strengthening a city’s tax base to creating lasting and sustainable communities. The investment in arts and culture is therefore part of a portfolio of strategies that includes initiatives in housing and transportation.

Dennis Scholl, Carol Coletta and Jim Lasko

Dennis Scholl, Carol Coletta and Jim Lasko

Lasko raised a challenge to the relationship between art and utility. "The purest practitioner of art would argue against utility, while the utilitarian approach to art can often feel less like art than food vending. Placemaking is sitting in a liminal zone where it is trying to get both of those things moving.”

Scholl elaborated, "For the first time, we’ve found a way to put our nose under the tent in cities and engage mayors that no longer have the money to invite businesses to move to cities. They’ve had to be very creative now about how to create energy in their cities. Mayors are getting excited that ‘arts for art’s sake’ has an ancillary impact that they can track and value.”

Coletta addressed the question of how ephemeral events can have lasting impacts in cities. "I think you can do temporality with regularity. Some temporary events are so powerful that they stay in the memory for a long time, and spark the imagination. Other special events can label a place as a special events area.”

Lasko concluded by asking, "Is it reasonable to think that a planner or designer, or landscape urbanist should be looking at placemaking within their repertoire of tools to create a more livable city?”

"When we talk about those 43,000 people we spoke to, they’re saying that the reason they are where they are is because of arts and culture,” Scholl replied. “I don’t know how we could ignore that as a way of approaching a problem. If you’re not thinking about how design could be used to convey social engagement, then you’re ignoring these leading indicators, and you might not get the result you expect.”

ArtPlace has already invested $26 million in projects across the United States, and the application process is currently open. Get your placemaking proposals rolling at the ArtPlace website.

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