Harnessing Arts and Culture for Responsible Placemaking in Historic Neighborhoods

April 30, 2020

By Dorian McDuffie, Public Art Project Manager, Atlanta City Studio

English Avenue is home to over 3,000 people and has been the subject of several plans designed to determine the fate of the neighborhood. The most recent one, the­ Westside Land Use Framework Plan, ­is guiding the cultural, economic and infrastructural initiatives in the community today. Its ambitious but attainable goal of creating new, exceptionally designed community spaces that is further elevated by the Department of City Planning’s ­Atlanta City Design: Aspiring to the Beloved Community­ and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ vision for One Atlanta. But this story about place starts with the people that live there.

Working with community leaders, such as Mother Mamie Moore and Winston Taylor among others, has been an eye-opening experience. Many of our meetings are reminiscent of the Civil Rights meetings held at the kitchen table of an engaged supporter. We have strategized, disagreed, agreed and moved forward with cultural and infrastructure plans for the intersection of Cameron Madison Alexander Boulevard and James P. Brawley Drive in Mother Moore’s home many times.

Community discussions at that table have garnered new sidewalks at the intersection, trash cans coming to the intersection and heartfelt discussions about how this work should continue to move forward.

It is imperative that this work involve and include the community. For this reason, the city of Atlanta Department of City Planning has embarked on several ways to include the wants and needs of the residents. Cultural asset mapping has enabled us to connect to residents and make note of their talents and skillsets. Many of these residents will be incorporated into our cultural planning in the neighborhood. Other outreach initiatives have included conducting a design exercise and giving the residents the opportunity to vote on the kinds of placemaking that they would like initiated at the intersection. A steering committee has come out of our efforts to have residents lead decision making around work with arts organizations that will bring our next round of cultural programming to St. Mark’s Church.

This kind of outreach is necessary for successful placemaking in underserved communities. Understanding the history of people of color who have tried to make a place has had a checkered past. For decades, African Americans were penalized for gathering in a space. It is imperative that we are mindful of this as we design and program space with and not for these communities.

Our eagerness to “help” must not be overshadowed by the community’s desire to maintain existing social and cultural codes that existed before our arrival. We must make sure that our efforts don’t result in displacemaking and understand that the word “placemaking” may have a different connotation to those who are the residents of the place being made. Instead, let’s move to the word “placekeeping” so that we acknowledge and honor what is already there and its significance to current residents.

Artists are imperative to the process of keeping place. They are the translator of social and cultural codes and necessary partners in the transformation of communities. They are the perfect go between for residents, funders and government and will often bring nontraditional ideas and methods to the table to move an initiative forward. Their use of experimentation and play as part of a process to work towards a solution results in qualitative, experiential placekeeping that leverages the arts to elevate residents and amplify cultural identity.

Collaborating with artists and adhering to certain principles when keeping place reaps the best results. Many organizations, like the Design Justice Network, outline useful principles to guide such work. Many of these are congruent with the practices of the Department of City Planning when working in underserved communities:
  • We use design to elevate our communities and center the voices of our residents who are directly impacted by the products of the design process.
  • We prioritize the impact of design on community over the intentions of the designer.
  • We view change as emergent from an open and collaborative process rather than as a point at the end of it.
  • We believe the role of the designer is that as a facilitator and that everyone is an expert based on their lived experience and all have unique contributions to bring to a design process
  • Before seeking a design, we look for what is already working in a place to honor and uplift traditional, indigenous and local knowledge and practices.
As we move forward with this work, we must be committed to wholistic engagement that is innovative, educational, fervent, culturally affirming and creative. Only then will we have spaces that reflect endurance and belonging through social interaction. Our responsibility in the community is to keep and create a place where everyone can live.

The city of Atlanta Department of City Planning is fortunate to work with great leadership in the neighborhood and to have as a partner the Westside Future Fund. This organization shares our philosophy of how to work with residents to enhance neighborhoods by working with them and reflecting the best of what they have to offer.

This article appears in the March/April 2020 edition of Georgia’s Cities Magazine.

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