The Six Distinctive Features of Creative Placemaking

October 26, 2015


How does one define that sometimes elusive concept of creative placemaking and what makes it succeed?

annmarie1-150x150My friend Nick Paleologos of the NJ State Council on the Arts, fondly states that New Jersey invented creative placemaking, based on the extraordinary developments in Rahway. Sharing New Jersey pride, I take a bit of exception with Nick’s claim because I remember other similar examples around the nation including Paducah, Kentucky and Providence, Rhode Island.

Some can say that the development of the Inner Harbor in Baltimore during the 1980’s by Rouse was a pioneer in creative placemaking. Others can take exception to even that claim if we look back further to the creative design of our nation’s capital by Pierre Charles L’Enfant in the late 1700’s.

Creative placemaking, as we know it now, first received policy credibility through the work of Rocco Landesman, who was chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts during the first term of President Obama. Rocco created a grant program at NEA called Our Town dedicated to creative placemaking. Rahway was one of the first recipients of an Our Town NEA grant, an achievement that made New Jerseyans proud and set the pace for similar creative placemaking developments in other parts of the state.

Here is “the mothership” definition by Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, developed in 2010 for the Our Town initiative  (taken here from their most recent article (in the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s Community Development Investment Review, entitled, “Creative Placemaking: How to do it Well”):

“In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, nonprofit and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local businesses’ viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.”

According to Markusen and Nicodemus, creative placemaking has three distinctive features:

  1. Strategic action by cross-sector partners
  2. Place-based orientation
  3. Core of arts and cultural activities

All of these features are in place in Rahway and now in other New Jersey towns and places like Red Bank, Millville, Jersey City, Newark and even where ArtPride New Jersey has its home, Burlington City (considered a “Sister City” to Rahway because of its proximity to rail transit and a major metropolitan area).

I’d like to add three more features to this list.

Union County Freeholder Chairman Mohamed S. Jalloh joined Rahway Mayor Samson Steinman and Councilmen David Brown and Rodney Farrar in reviewing the ‘Art Outside the Box’ artist submissions that will be featured on traffic control boxes at three Rahway intersections.
Union County Freeholder Chairman Mohamed S. Jalloh joined Rahway Mayor Samson Steinman and Councilmen David Brown and Rodney Farrar in reviewing the ‘Art Outside the Box’ artist submissions that will be featured on traffic control boxes at three Rahway intersections.

The first, and arguably the most important, is municipal and county leadership and vision because without it the first feature listed (strategic action by cross-sector partners) does not happen. It takes sheer will, focus and patience to achieve success in creative placemaking. And it doesn’t hurt to have an elected leader in place over a reasonable length of time, one who is willing to broker the necessary alliances when politics can present a game of musical chairs that prevents any one administration from achieving long term goals.

The second is arts education. I don’t believe any of these features can be sustained without care and strategic planning that addresses lifelong learning through the arts as a key ingredient of creative placemaking. If a place does not encourage and  nurture both youth and adults through arts education,  an “advocacy void “ is created and suddenly the place has lost those who care the most about making sure their living environment “their creative place” has a future.

Finally, I’d like to recommend that the last feature include a strategy or strategies for achieving sustainability of creative places. Going back to Anne Markusen and Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, their quote is:

“Despite the rapid ascent of creative placemaking as cultural policy, it is now at a crossroad – ‘mature and gain substance’ or ‘shrivel up under the heat of scrutiny.’”

For creative places to mature, that first recommended feature must be revisited, which is municipal and county leadership. While building creative places, leaders must assure that the BID’s, SID’s, or whatever government structure supports such development, has a secure and dedicated revenue source that will sustain creative placemaking initiatives and help them evolve over time.

While the beginning of this movement may be credited to 2010, we all know how quickly our environment changes in this fast paced world.

The most successful creative places assure social and economic equity, access to healthy living environments and dwellings that are affordable and do not out price those who pioneered the movement — in many cases, our artists, one of the most valuable cultural assets a creative place can claim.

Photo at top: Downtown Rahway, Hamilton Stage

Ann Marie Miller is the Director of Advocacy and Public Policy at ArtPride New Jersey and a regular contributor to the Dodge Blog. Email her at Click here to visit ArtPride’s website.