Vibrancy by proxy

The discipline of Economics studies and describes the allocation of scarce resources to competing ends. In other words, economists explore how individuals, collectives (aka, businesses), communities, societies, and civilizations decide where and how to spend their time, talent, and treasure — in a world where each of those things is in limited supply.

Some economists study this so they can describe, model, and even predict how these complex decision systems will behave over time. Others study this so they can intervene in these systems, and influence their directions or outcomes.

Foundations, individual donors, and public funders are therefore, essentially, economists of the second kind described above. They seek to change the direction of a complex system toward a specific end — generally toward more, different, or ‘better’ outputs than would exist without their intervention (‘better,’ here, could mean more robust, more vital, more accessible, more technically excellent, more aesthetically focused, or a thousand other things). And they, themselves, make choices about how to allocate scarce resources against competing ends — not just money, but focus, energy, civic discourse, and other such rare jewels.

Which is why I always find it intriguing when a funder describes, in some detail, what kind of change they’re looking for. A recent case-in-point is ArtPlace, in their release of their new set of Vibrancy Indicators. ArtPlace is in the business of fostering creative places through the arts. In the organization’s own description, it is ”a collaboration of eleven leading national and regional foundations, eight federal agencies including the National Endowment for the Arts, and six of the nation’s largest banks to accelerate creative placemaking across the U.S.” The new set of indicators describes how they will observe success in their grants and grantees, and what evidence will inform their future investment or philanthropic decisions.

In short, their premise is that creative places are more vibrant places, and that ‘vibrancy’ is the thing to be observed over time. And since you can’t generally observe and measure something as ethereal as ‘vibrancy’ directly — particularly in consistent ways across the country, and in ways that describe how it’s changing over time — you need to define the things you would expect to see surrounding it, the proxies of vibrancy. These proxies should be readily available, and consistently so across your region of inquiry (here, nationwide), and offer some logical connection back to the actual thing you’re hoping to observe.

So, what are the proxies of vibrancy and their rationale, according to ArtPlace?

  • Population
    Vibrant neighborhoods contain a density of local population. Increasing population is an indicator of increasing vibrancy.
  • Employment Rate
    Vibrant neighborhoods have a high fraction of their residents of working age who are employed. Increases in vibrancy are evidenced by increases in the fraction of the working age population who are employed.
  • Workers in Creative Occupations
    Vibrant neighborhoods have higher than average concentrations of residents who are employed in the arts, writing, performing and other similar occupations.
  • Indicator Businesses
    Vibrant areas have high concentrations of indicator businesses (businesses that represent destinations of choice for cultural, recreational, consumption or social activity).
  • Jobs
    Vibrant neighborhoods have abundant local job opportunities. Increases in employment are an indicator of improving vibrancy.
  • Walk Score
    Vibrant neighborhoods have many destinations within walking distance.
  • Mixed Use
    Vibrant neighborhoods contain a mix of jobs and residences.
  • Cell Activity
    Vibrant neighborhoods have relatively high levels of activity on nights and weekends and are places people congregate away from home and outside of regular 9 to 5 business hours.
  • Independent Businesses
    Vibrant neighborhoods have more locally owned independent businesses.
  • Creative Industry Jobs
    Vibrant neighborhoods have higher than average concentrations of workers employed in businesses that involve information, media, arts and creative endeavors.

The power of proxies is that they can focus attention and other investments in highly specific ways. The danger comes from that exact same capacity. My first reaction to these metrics is that they do offer an interesting and useful lens on vibrancy, although they seem biased toward an urban flavor of vibrancy, rather than rural or ex-urban.

If I were a current grantmaker, I would be exploring these indicators carefully to see if they capture the kind of change I’m looking for. If I were a current ArtPlace grantee, I would be scattering to see whether and how I could move these metrics in the work I’ve been funded to do.



  1. says

    Andrew, thanks very much for the focus on the Vibrancy indicators.

    Two points…

    Rural areas seem equally concerned about vibrancy, if one looks at the enormous response to the National Trust Main Street initiatives. But in rural areas, we will expand the geography we use to evaluate vibrancy.

    These metrics will be collected by ArtPlace, not by grantees. Allowing grantees to devote full time to their work, rather than divert money and attention to collecting metrics addresses a concern some of your readers raised earlier.

  2. Heather B. says

    A further concern is how little control and contribution an individual arts organization can make to many of these metrics. This leads funders, I think, toward arts consortiums and more inter-arts centers and toward bigger group efforts, rather than toward supporting small individual organizations that may be artistically excellent and far more likely to take creative risks, but don’t have the audience base to truly reshape a city. I don’t think the big regional centers are where the most creative artistic innovation is taking place. However, metrics like these will ensure the Ford-Foundation-era centers will continue to be funded, because many are already at the centers of these kinds of city neighborhoods.

    And I do mean cities, which is unfortunate since suburban-located performance venues may be the wave of the future. They attract families and parent audiences who are unwilling to pay for extra hours of babysitting monies to drive into the urban areas and pay exorbitant parking rates to see the performing arts. At this time, the audiences we seem to be losing most are adults between 30-45, in part because initiatives like these reinforce the idea that the arts are for young urban creatives with hip, low-paying jobs and no family concerns. I would suggest you include “family attendance” as part of your population metrics, and see what you find in terms of the 30-45-with-kids audience demographic. Love of the arts doesn’t disappear when you have a family, but our current urban-based system for the arts, in many locations, makes it unnecessarily difficult for parents to stay in the audience.

    • says

      Heather, I appreciate your concern about the value of smaller organizations that may be more likely to take creative risks. I share your concern. If you look at what ArtPlace has funded, you’ll see that we are, in fact, supporting many smaller organizations. Fortunately, we have the ability with these metrics to get very specific about geography, so we can actually see impact of smaller efforts and smaller organizations. We don’t believe in any way that changes in vibrancy are completely tied to an arts intervention nor is an increase in vibrancy the only impact creative placemaking will have. We are using the Vibrancy Indicators to learn as we go. We can compare neighborhoods in the same metro area that begin at the same starting point in terms of vibrancy — one with an arts investment and one without — and then track their changes over time. We believe we will learn about the collection of investments that over time give us desirable neighborhoods.

      We also want to be open about the unexpected benefits of creative placemaking. Laura Zabel at Springboard for the Arts in St. Paul, for instance, notes the 100+ positive media mentions her organization has generated during Central Corridor construction. Whereas the “default” narrative during construction would have been about how bad things are for business and inconvenient for residents, Springboard turned that to an overwhelmingly positive narrative through its art production.

      The Vibrancy Indicators shouldn’t be about success or failure. They should be about what we can learn together.

      • Heather B. says

        Thank you for the thoughtful response. I am interested in what you discover with all of these metrics, and I think the questions you are trying to answer are relevant. Since I’ve been working more on audience diversity issues than on placemaking issues, I tend to think first about: What theatregoing populations does this funding model attract/ reinforce? Whom does it discourage? I’m guessing that you’ll already be considering age, ethnicity, and income diversity elsewhere in your analysis, and I’ll look forward to hearing more about your discoveries as you study past grantees. I do hope you’d consider looking at parent status as well, as I’m unaware of any large-scale study that has done so and I think it would be illuminating.

  3. says


    Thanks very much for your thoughtful column. You’ve captured both the spirit and the challenge of constructing the Vibrancy Indicators. We’re looking to find the footprints, shadows and traces that appear in places that are vibrant, and hope to draw useful inferences from the results. That said, we recognize that these proxies are only imperfect and indirect measures of the underlying phenomenon we’re looking to understand. We look forward to a conversation with you and others about how to interpret and refine these indicators and contribute to promoting creative place-making.

    You’re right to point out that the density of activity in urban areas essentially gives us much, much more data, in effect much more crisply outlining the areas of light and shadow. But we’re also gathering similar data for rural and smaller metropolitan areas, and as Carol said, we’re exploring using different geographies for aggregating this data to better reflect the way vibrancy plays out in these less dense settings.