Placemaking

In October I am speaking in Washington, DC to the Community Development Interest Group at the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies annual conference, Assembly 2012. (That was a mouthful!) They are going to be focusing on Creative Placemaking. When asked what my topic would be, it seemed like “Beyond Placemaking” might be energizing, for them and for me. I’ve written previously (Creative Placemaking) about my concern that “placemaking” might become the latest fashion statement in arts advocacy. We have had a good run (and will continue to do so, I’m sure) with economic development. There is a lot of energy (and money) in the placemaking arena. But I am concerned that the potential for the arts that substantive engagement with community represents is *much* broader and deeper than either of these categories and I don’t want us to lose sight of that.

So, knowing that I would soon be talking about placemaking, it seemed important to read Roberto Bedoya’s recent article Creative Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-Belonging. I’m glad I did. I had been focusing on what to my mind is the common thread of much placemaking discussion–creation of new bricks and mortar projects or application of the arts to existing, largely generic physical structures. I know that’s not the sum total of what the placemaking conversations are about, but that was the unconscious shorthand I was carrying in my head. Roberto’s writing reminded me that ultimately, important places are about people’s memories, traditions, the fabric of their lives. In other words, culture–of neighborhoods, communities, ethnic groups, societies. The physical structures serve as the mnemonic devices that trigger memories and cement relationships.

It is the tendency to assume that all are like us that leads to homogenous approaches in any field. Placemaking is simply one of them. In providing training for effective community engagement, I attempt to ensure that participants understand that their perspective is limited to their own experience and, in the best of circumstances, the reports of the experience of others that they have sought out (and heard). There are many other stories. Mr. Bedoya points out that a missing link in placemaking conversation is “a lack of understanding that before you have places of belonging, you must feel you belong.” I think that may be a source of my unconscious assumption that many placemaking projects were generic.

Educators understand that elementary schools do not function in a vacuum. Factors technically beyond the purview of the classroom–issues of home and neighborhood environment: readiness, support, supervision–are critical to children’s success. Similarly, while creative placemakers cannot be held accountable for any lack of belonging that citizens might feel, the success of their endeavors is closely tied to this element of the “social infrastructure.” It is important to bear this fact in mind when developing projects and to do whatever can be done to ameliorate the impact on the project that will result from people feeling themselves to be outsiders. Creative placemakers, in developing projects, need to take people’s feeling of disenfranchisement into account as much as possible so that the resultant works do not become homogenous expressions (or reflections) of majority experience.

Once again, I am grateful to Mr. Bedoya for highlighting an issue in cultural awareness. It is important for us to remember that we don’t know what we don’t know, as hard as it often is to bear that in mind. I now feel better prepared to begin drafting my remarks for NASAA.

Engage!

Doug

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Comments

  1. Roberto Bedoya says

    Doug,

    Thanks for your remarks and appreciation of the essay. You point about “homogenous expressions” – right one. I look forward to when our paths cross again and the animated conversation we’re sure to have…let’s talk about how complicity is constructed that leads to dis-belonging. Have fun at NASA.

    Roberto

  2. michael rohd says

    Doug- great to hear you bringing these thoughts to your task- thanks for the essay. One thought, especially as you prep to speak to the particular group in October-

    “Similarly, while creative placemakers cannot be held accountable for any lack of belonging that citizens might feel, the success of their endeavors is closely tied to this element of the “social infrastructure.””

    This, to me, is the hub, the sticky middle point where language can gently but firmly allow privilege to lead to projects disconnected from place- i believe we have to rethink the notion of placemakers as somehow outside agents that can initiate/lead/execute projects where their success is looked at via criteria NOT about the people who live there. In your text that a creative placemaker cannot be held accountable for a lack of belonging someone may feel, you are driving the placemaker to be motivated by a success grid to lean them towards caring about elements of social infrastructure- and this is smart- but it maybe allows the people in the place to still be treated as potential routes to larger forces being deemed successful, rather than framing the potential of placemaking as an endeavor of partnership, first and foremost.

    It would be great if NASAA were interrogating, deeply, the local ‘actors’ and context in their region any time they get on the creative placemaking bandwagon…

    as always, thanks for the thoughtful words.

  3. says

    Doug,

    Thanks for this really thoughtful post. As I was reading, I was particularly struck by this comment:

    “Roberto’s writing reminded me that ultimately, important places are about people’s memories, traditions, the fabric of their lives. In other words, culture – of neighborhoods, communities, ethnic groups, societies.”

    It made me think about Casta Maria’s new project, The South Bronx Living Heritage Trail. The project is a walking trail through the Hunts Point neighborhood, birthplace of Hip Hop and Latin jazz, that aims to preserve the neighborhood’s history and bring residents together to create a better future. Casita isn’t building a new structure, instead, they are collecting neighborhood memories, exploring those memories’ connection to existing local structures, and curating an experience that invites residents to remember, relive, and celebrate their community.

    You can learn more about the project in this Audio Postcard on ArtsFwd.org (http://vimeopro.com/artsfwd/audio-postcards/video/35574395)

    What’s most interesting to me is that in all my conversations with the team at Casita, no one has referred to the project as “placemaking.” Perhaps that because, as you say, placemaking has become associated with physical structures, or because it is thought of as something done by an outsider. I’d really like to see projects like this one, generated by and for community, become a bigger part of the conversation about placemaking, instead of being considered only “audience or community engagement.”

    Karina Mangu-Ward
    Director, Activating Innovation
    EmcArts/ArtsFwd

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