What is Creative Placemaking?

The term creative placemaking has been used in cultural affairs, planning, public policy, and philanthropy during the past several years. It is not a common term although it is becoming more widely used. It refers to the use of art and cultural projects as organizing perspectives through which the restoration and reanimation of communities can be planned and implemented. Above all, a creative place engages people in ways that lead to the social and economic re-positioning of a community.

Creative placemaking first received policy credibility through the work of Rocco Landesman, who was Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts during the first term of President Obama. Rocco created a grant program at NEA called Our Town (http://www.nea.gov/national/ourtown/), dedicated to creative placemaking. Moreover he worked to identify ways that the NEA and other domestic programs of the Federal government could work together.

Just as importantly Chairman Landesman, along with several Foundation leaders, was the driving force behind ArtPlace (http://www.artplaceamerica.org), a collaboration of major national and regional foundations dedicated to supporting creative placemaking. NEA and ArtPlace together are a partnership that continues to provide capital and policy support for the creative placemaking perspective.

If you were to search for the origins of creative placemaking as a field you would have to look to at least four different origins or at what Richard Ogle would call four distinct idea spaces (http://www.amazon.com/Smart-World-Breakthrough-Creativity-Science/dp/1591394171).

In his book Smart World, Ogle describes the incremental process of new ideas and the ways in which even seemingly breakthrough ideas are built on established (socially given) products and intelligence. Idea spaces are fields of thinking and it is sometimes at the intersection of multiple idea spaces where points of integration and contradiction lead to innovations.

The first of those four fields has to do with design and city planning interest in quality public spaces. This became an increasingly important topic from the 1970’s onward. The work of William Whyte, an urbanist and founder of Project for Public Spaces (http://www.pps.org/reference/wwhyte/), is the most important reference point for the late twentieth-century movement to reimagine great public spaces and define what they are and how they operate.

Secondly, there are the numerous policy initiatives by arts and cultural advocates to measure the economic importance of the cultural sector’s contribution (usually framed in nonprofit arts terms) to the economy. These studies became common in the 1990’s. Americans for the Arts provides great information on this topic (http://www.artsusa.org/information_services/research/services/economic_impact/iv/national.asp). The most important thing about this work is that it has been an important way for arts and cultural organizations to find a place at the economic development table as a valuable sector and not a philanthropic frill.

A third idea space that is important has to do with research around the practical connections between creativity and economic value. In an information- and design-heavy economy, the competitive advantages of creative places are an important focus of study. A great deal of work on the meaning of creativity for the economy took off in the 1990’s but has antecedents in many areas including psychology, education, and design studies.

A great deal of this work is about technological diffusion, regional economics, and the qualities of those environments where new ideas and enterprises flourish. In different ways, the work of economists like Michael Porter and Richard Florida assert the place-based characteristics of creativity and enterprise growth. To read a particularly well-constructed paper on the connection in Europe between creativity and economic growth, I recommend this paper by the World Academy of Science (http://www.waset.org/journals/waset/v59/v59-171.pdf).

A fourth idea space relates directly to local economic and community development over the past half century as it has been practiced in distressed urban and rural areas. America has a rich history of these practices that bridge local government, market actors, and civil society. During the past fifty years in particular, a tradition of community-development activity emerged – first on the heels of Great Society programs but later through a variety of other government, civil society, and philanthropic initiatives.

Creative placemaking has emerged through the intersections of these different practices. As the field expands, it will enter the more common vocabulary of how we rebuild places by valuing connections between creativity, function, and public life.