Trying To Make a Place Better Through the Arts? Put People First.

March 21, 2012

Since 2008, Arts Build Communities at Rutgers University has been exploring this question:  “Why are some communities more successful than others in creative placemaking?”

We’ve reviewed studies and scholarly articles and interviewed dozens of people engaged in making places through the arts – including artists, placemaking professionals and elected officials.  We also have worked on or observed creative placemaking initiatives in several communities in New Jersey.  All of this is leading to a clear answer about what works: people.  Or more specifically, the kind of people involved in creative placemaking, and how they connect with others.

This may be surprising to those who think you need a performing arts center or cultural district to do creative placemaking.  Big projects certainly can help, but they don’t need to be the starting points.

Sustainable Jersey Arts and Culture Taskforce

That’s why the Sustainable Jersey Arts and Culture Taskforce – a group working to promote sustainability through creative placemaking – recommends that the first step for municipalities is to build a Creative Team.   If you’re familiar with Sustainable Jersey, you might know about the “Green Team.”  This is a diverse group of municipal and community members who guide and advise their colleagues and neighbors on environmental initiatives.  The Creative Team does the same thing for arts activities that connect to the pillars of sustainability: protecting the planet, helping people, and enhancing prosperity.

Building a Creative Team is one of at least four actions that the Taskforce will propose for inclusion in Sustainable Jersey’s checklist for municipalities in 2012.  You can learn more about this and the other actions at Create A Place: Arts Build Communities, the annual conference on creative placemaking.  It will be held April 4, from 8 am to 4 pm, at Rutgers University in Newark.  Learn more or register. The conference is produced by Arts Build Communities of Rutgers University.  It is supported by a number of organizations, including Sustainable Jersey and the American Planning Association New Jersey chapter.

What a Creative Team Should Look Like

A good Creative Team should include a wide variety of people who want to improve quality of life, enhance standards of living, and build healthier environments for arts and culture to thrive.  If the group is made up entirely of artists, or of business people, it’s going to have to work a lot harder to get where a diverse group can go.  The team should either have, or have direct access to, the people in the community who can make things stop, and who can make things go.

The Creative Team serves as a group of stewards for creative placemaking in the community.  Places that have been most successful in creative placemaking—such as Santa Fe, New Mexico or Asheville, North Carolina—have put in a lot of work and effort into building their creative communities and economies.  This includes identifying arts and other cultural assets within a community, providing direct or indirect contributions to support the arts, promoting environments where arts can thrive, and building economies that helps arts organizations and artists succeed.  The Creative Team can do some of this work, but most of it is done by a wide variety of stakeholders in the community.  Creative Team members provide their greatest value when they guide, support and monitor creative placemaking by helping decision-makers  pursue opportunities and create ways to overcome challenges.

Getting people together is the first step.  But if the people have never worked together on creative placemaking, or there are significant tensions in the community, it’s going to take some time for the individuals to work successfully as a team.  You can learn more about the experiences of creative placemakers in New Jersey and beyond by going to Create A Place.  Arts Build Communities also offers community coaching, a six-month program that helps creative teams build their capacity to achieve success more quickly and efficiently.

The pictures we often see of successful creative placemaking often are of large festivals or big cultural institutions.  Behind each of those pictures should be those of people sitting at tables, sharing ideas.

Create A Place

Create A Place: Arts Build Communities is the only major event in New Jersey that brings together artists, creative sector professionals, elected and appointed officials, community and economic development professionals and urban designers and planners to explore creative placemaking. Learn more or register.

For more about Sustainable Jersey®:

Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP, is the founding Director of Arts Build Communities, an initiative of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.  It is produced by a partnership between the Office of Academic and Public Partnerships in the Arts and Humanities and the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.

Sustainable Jersey staff and partners are regular contributors to the Dodge blog