Trends in Creative Placemaking on Problem Properties: 2019 National Survey Findings

October 3, 2019

Center for Community Progress

C reative placemaking is a growing field. In the last decade, philanthropic and government entities have invested millions of dollars into creative placemaking endeavors. In addition to on-the-ground projects, entire organizations, conferences, and publications have sprung up to support the field. At the same time, social and racial equity have become some of the most dominant themes in the field of community development. Creative placemaking, if done right, supports these equitable outcomes.

Within this broader field of work exists a subset of creative placemaking efforts: those taking place on vacant, abandoned, and underused properties, especially in neighborhoods struggling with significant numbers of these “problem properties.” Community Progress’ work over the last several years suggests that these efforts face unique challenges—and also perhaps unique potential for major positive impact—and deserve further dedicated study and support. That is the motivation behind this report, and the national survey upon which it is based.

This report builds on the programming and research captured in Creative Placemaking on Vacant Properties: Lessons Learned from Four Cities (2018). That publication explored efforts in four communities: Kalamazoo, Michigan; Macon, Georgia; Newburgh, New York; and Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania. Each place intentionally engaged in creative placemaking on problem properties, with varying levels of intensiveness, strategy, and community engagement. From murals featuring neighborhood residents to vacant house storytelling tours to major rehab projects converting vacant properties into community arts spaces, the initiatives were wide-ranging. While each of these communities had demonstrated an interest and made efforts to implement creative placemaking on vacant properties, they were all at different stages of implementing and institutionalizing these practices. The 2018 publication sought to develop a clear understanding of how creative placemaking was being used as a revitalization and engagement tool and to share valuable lessons learned with the field.

Five preliminary themes emerged through the examination of these diverse, impactful efforts:
  1. The importance of partnerships: By definition, creative placemaking involves engagement and therefore partnership is imperative. However, forming and maintaining successful partnerships can be difficult. Creative placemaking projects often require three- or four-way relationships among city government, artists, residents and community developers.
  2. Ways to generate momentum: Practitioners must strike a balance between actively engaging in short-term, temporary projects and crafting and pursuing a long-term plan. All four projects engaged in temporary activities, adopted a hyper-local focus, and cultivated leadership to pass creative placemaking activities on to partners.
  3. Engagement of residents and other stakeholders: Creative placemaking projects need to serve the people, in addition to serving the place. This includes providing a variety of entry points for engagement, identifying key people who can help achieve goals, and/or involving youth to attract more participation.
  4. Identifying regulatory barriers: Regulatory requirements can serve as a barrier to implementing creative placemaking projects. While there are limited prescribed solutions, building trust is essential. Building trust happens through identifying, cultivating liaisons for this work, setting transparent expectations and communicating clearly, being open to possibilities, and giving each other the benefit of the doubt.
  5. Creative means of funding projects: In order to successfully fund projects, local leaders must demonstrate the value of creative placemaking on problem properties. This often involves cultivating cross-sector partnerships. Most projects piece together funds from a variety of sources.
Though it was illuminating, Creative Placemaking on Vacant Properties: Lessons Learned from Four Cities surfaced new questions. Do the themes identified in that publication hold true for a broader swath of communities across the country? How can communities sustain their creative placemaking efforts over the long term, particularly when it comes to resident-driven projects? And what more can be learned about how communities navigate the regulatory challenges that can impede these efforts?

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