Creative Placemaking

I am a huge fan of Americans for the Arts’ Animating Democracy program. To my mind, their work is on the side of the angels. (And, of course, it has not hurt that Barbara Shaffer Bacon and Pam Korza have been kind to me and supportive of my work in many, many ways.) So, it was with great anticipation that I awaited the first Animating Democracy Blog Salon. I enjoyed myself immensely reading the posts, but on the last day of the event, I had (I think) a bit of a revelation. Here is how Joanna Chin (Animating Democracy’s Project Coordinator) framed the topic at the outset:

  1. Where do you see breakthrough work at the intersection of art and community, civic, or social change? What makes it effective?
  2. Looking to the future, what will it take to move and sustain arts and culture into its most potent role in community development, civic engagement, and social change?
  3. What are the principles we have to hold onto and what are the shifts that need to occur?

I do not have enough mental RAM to adequately process the posts I read (nor do I have any qualifications as a researcher). However, it seems to me that the vast majority of them were, in one way or another, about Creative Placemaking. I enthusiastically applaud the topic, it’s important–even vital–to the health of communities in the future. And it is a critical element of community engagement work. But I had not anticipated this being the primary focus of the Salon. Certainly, as in #2 above, it’s the essential intersection of the arts and community development. But it seems to me that there are many, many, many, many more avenues to pursue in considering the arts and civic engagement and the arts and social change.

My “revelation” (if indeed it is one) is that the confluence of forces (primarily funding) as represented by the Our Town and ArtPlace grant projects (to name two significant ones), has, to a great extent, refocused arts and community engagement thinking on creative placemaking. It has also, clearly, gotten the attention of some of the larger arts community.

Once that thought entered my head, I tried to process what I thought about it. (That’s still a work in progress. And I always find thought processing to be taxing.) For the moment, I am entertaining two contradictory thoughts. First, creative placemaking as an area of focus is vastly superior to economic development as a means of developing “street cred” (OK, the pun is marginally intentional) in public policy circles. In creative placemaking discussions, the arts have something inherent in the discipline to bring to the discussion that is not true in pure economic development discussions. (For example, with respect to economic development, how do arts jobs differ significantly from sports jobs, etc.?) The arts have substance to offer in matters of design and the creation of attractive, interactive spaces. It is a more natural fit and I would guess “feels” better to more arts advocates than the economic development arguments. So, its potential impact should be far greater. That’s good, maybe even great. And it seems to be “the next big thing.”

The “on the other hand” thought I have is, once again, the danger of seeing this as the principal benefit (or role) of community engagement. It’s a good thing, but what about all the other benefits of engagement, both to arts organizations and their communities? As a died-in-the-wool worrier, I fret that a conceptual train may be building up a head of steam that could impede engagement work on other fronts. (Let’s do a count on the number of unrelated metaphors being mixed here. . . . Or not.)

Hats off to Animating Democracy; thanks for years of great work highlighting the need for and benefits of community engagement work. And thanks for a great series of posts here. I look forward to the next AD Blog Salon.



  1. Doug-
    I think you have hit a nail on the head here
    in a significant way.

    The conceptual train of creative placemaking, an important spoke in the wheel of arts based civic engagement, is in danger of becoming the wheel’s hub.

    I have an article coming out on HowlRound in the next few days that frames some of my thoughts on the subject- for the time being, I simply want to join your reflecting on the complexity of subbing out the economic development platform for this one. I also want to join you in deep deep respect for Animating Democracy, Pam & Barbara, and the work they have done and continue to do.

    There just seems an important shift happening, with funders heartily behind it, that needs attention paid.
    I hope you and I can connect at some point to discuss this further.

    Respectfully, Michael

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