A 21st-Century Commons

SantaFePlazaIn June I was asked to speak to representatives of New Mexico’s Arts and Cultural Districts. The occasion provided me the opportunity to reflect on the intersection of creative placemaking and community engagement. Creative placemaking is designed, among other things, to bring “diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.” [Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa, Creative Placemaking: http://arts.gov/sites/default/files/CreativePlacemaking-Paper.pdf] If arts organizations are participating in CP work, this is a description of community engagement.

The presentation I gave in New Mexico reflected a revelation on my part about creative placemaking. These projects, that are becoming such an important part of the cultural landscape, have the capacity to create 21st-Century versions of the town square or plaza, the commons from earlier eras–places where people gathered to celebrate and be in community.

The full text of those remarks was very specific to New Mexico. I have created a condensed and generalized version that is available on the ArtsEngaged website: Creating the 21st-Century Commons. Even it, however, is too verbose for the purposes of a blog post. I am providing below a “Cliff’s Notes” outline of the main points.

What Is A Commons for the 21st Century?

A Place–a physical location where people can come together,

  • Attractive/Inviting
  • Appropriate (Scale, appearance, environmental fit)
  • Memorable

An Idea–a concept or set of concepts that makes the community assume–even demand–ownership of that place,

  • Barrier Free (No–or minimized–physical, economic, historic, or social impediments)
  • Welcoming
  • Community Defining (Including opportunities to create and build the community’s identity)

A Container of Events

  • Vibrant center where attractive things always (or with great regularity) happen
  • Crucible for Relationship Building within and between all local communities

And, from the perspective of the presenters of arts and culture,

A Cultural Commons that

  • Reflects the local community
  • Is welcoming to all.

There is a need for places for community members to come together, to interact, to learn from each other, to form social bonds. Arts organizations, partnering with community members on creative placemaking projects can have an active hand in making more livable communities. And, it’s no coincidence that doing so will also greatly enhance the visibility, stature, and, ultimately, viability of those organizations.



Photo:Attribution Some rights reserved by puroticorico


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.