Let us take some things with us, and leave other things behind.
This post is part of the series, Future of the Field: Cross-Sector Creative Placemaking Series.
At the start of 2020, I left my perch at a large community development intermediary with national reach to lead a tiny, place-based startup nonprofit. A year and a half into this shift in my professional role, and in the field itself — not to mention a pandemic, a racial justice movement, an election, and so many other things — I find myself reflecting on what matters most, what I want to take with me, and what I want to leave behind as we continue to pursue our vision for more equitable community development. Here’s what I find myself thinking about:
On the themes of Reflecting Community Identity & Ensuring Cultural Continuity…
At its best, creative placemaking can help us reveal and realize the cultural underpinnings of space and place. Years after a site visit, I still marvel at the elegance and subtle brilliance of artist George Lee’s Yesler Terrace Tribute to Hospitality Table for the Seattle Housing Authority. Developed after a six month field process in Yesler Terrace pre-empting a period of community change and redevelopment, Hospitality Table functions as interactive sculpture, physically embodying residents’ cultural traditions, notions of generosity and belonging, and what it means to welcome outsiders, whether visitors or new neighbors, into one’s community. Furthermore, I applaud the project’s administrative champions and advocates within Seattle Housing Authority, who invested time and financial resources, and believed in a process when they could have simply ordered a few sets of Fermob bistro tables and chairs. This, to me, is creative placemaking at its best.
Creative Placemaking is hard, complex, and messy work. Creative placemaking is about supporting more equitable community development. And for the majority of practitioners, it is also about community organizing, getting finicky generators to work, assuaging the permitting office, and becoming certified to operate an Aerial Work Platform, mixed in with navigating local politics, beef between eccentric neighbors, and the legacies of systemic racism and redlining in our neighborhoods. Let us encourage more academics, researchers, and thought leaders to get their start or otherwise acquire significant real-world experience as arts, culture, and community development practitioners, and involve more practitioners as field building leaders as we forge ahead.
On the theme of Building Collective Power…
Language absolutely matters, and not at the expense of excluding people from our movement. Let us avoid exclusive jargon and judging those who don’t use the lingo du jour and instead focus on aligning our values and actions in the spirit of equitable community development and building community power.
On the themes of Making Issues Compelling & Generating Resources…
Ten years in, there remains a substantial gap between creative placemaking theory and rhetoric, and practice. Let us think of places like New York and the Bay Area, and the market forces, strategies, and tactics that make those places unique, as outliers on the bell curve rather than focal points of scalable practice. And let us do a better job of learning from and lending our collective momentum to promising practices in rural communities, the exurbs and suburbs, the south, the small- and mid-size cities, the post-industrial-loosing-population-odds-are-stacked-against-them-underdog communities (a non-exhaustive list, but you get the idea).
Related: Let us be thankful for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), in particular the Our Town program, and what it has done and continues to do to seed the creative placemaking movement without geographic restriction. The NEA steps up time and time again to fill a critical need in supporting creative placemaking, arts, culture, and design in urban, suburban, and rural communities, across all 50 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico, something that few other foundations or intermediaries can say.
And finally, I wish to invoke Liz Lerman’s notion of “hiking the horizontal” in which we think and practice along a non-hierarchical spectrum of perspectives with authenticity and rigor. Let us double down on our efforts to work collaboratively across sectors and disciplines. Let us recognize creative placemaking’s inextricable link to community development, a field that existed well before the term creative placemaking was coined. And as this research shows, a field that has grown to include an influx of arts and culture, and made space at the metaphorical table for artists and cultural practitioners in such transformative and bold ways. Let us welcome whatever comes next and continue to bend the arc of community development toward a more equitable future with empathy, imagination, and joy.