Spaces to Places

Transforming Public Spaces into Vibrant Places for the Community.

Using Art to Create a Sense of Place

Can art create a more livable place and enhance a community’s quality of life?

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), among others, believes so.   NEA believes that art is an essential part of building a strong community, and as important as land use, transportation, education, housing, infrastructure, and public safety.

Communities across the nation are leveraging the arts and engaging design to make their communities more livable by enhancing quality of life; increasing creative activity; developing a distinct sense of place;  and producing vibrant local economies that together capitalize on their existing assets.

This is what is referred to as Creative Placemaking.

While definitions of Creative Placemaking vary, here is how Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa Nicodemus define it:

"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 business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire and be inspired."

They also believe there are three creative placemaking core concepts, as outlined in a white pager on creative placemaking:

  1. Strategic action by cross-sector partners
  2. A place-based orientation
  3. A core of arts and cultural activities

NEA is not alone in engaging in creative placemaking.

ArtPlace, a consortium of foundations with government agencies serving as strategic advisors, focuses much of its work on creative placemaking.  They developed a set of practices for successful placemaking in which art and culture work intentionally to help to transform a place:

  • places artists and art at the center of planning, execution and activity
  • leverages the creative potential already present in a place
  • supports economic diversity in the community
  • creates interesting places that capitalize on distinctiveness
  • creates a place where people want to go and linger
  • contributes to a mix of uses and people that makes places more diverse, more interesting and more active
  • fosters connections among people and across cultures
  • is always presenting itself to the public and encouraging pedestrian activity
  • creates a place where business wants to be
  • convinces people that a place can have a different and better future

The national nonprofit, Levitt Pavilions reinvigorates America’s public spaces through creative placemaking and creating opportunities for everyone to experience the performing arts.  The Levitt program transforms abandoned, blighted places—whether a neglected and gang-infested park, a dormant downtown, or a toxic brownfield —into vibrant, welcoming destinations where families, friends and people of all ages and backgrounds come together for free, live music. Each Levitt venue is managed and programmed by a Friends of Levitt nonprofit, collectively presenting the largest free concert series in America. In addition, national Levitt has recently introduced a new grant initiative, the Levitt AMP [Your City] Grant Awards, to bring free concerts to small and mid-sized towns and cities across the U.S.

 A free concert at the Levitt Pavilion in Arlington, Texas.
A free concert at the Levitt Pavilion in Arlington, Texas.

The success of creative placemaking is dependent upon collaborations between various civic stakeholders such as governments, private investment, not-for-profit organizations, artists and citizen groups.

And the Federal Government is joining in on the band wagon.  Both HUD and the Department of Education have revised funding guidelines to encourage arts-based strategies as part of the Choice and Promise neighborhood programs.

NEA is helping out as well.  To encourage communities to become involved in Creative Placemaking, NEA developed the Our Town grants to fund creative placemaking projects that contribute to the livability of communities and place the arts at their core.

Creative placemaking can be used to help revitalize a commercial corridor.  For example, the District of Columbia’s Office of Planning used an ArtsPlace grant to develop Arts and Culture Temporiums in four emerging neighborhoods where vacant and/or underutilized storefronts and empty lots were transformed into artist showcases/villages for three to six months.  They brought arts to the community through pop-up art galleries, impromptu dance performances, and the design of colorful urban street furniture.  One project was a stretch along 14th Street, NW where the whole community came together to sand, paint and assemble bright blue hippo-shaped planters and a purple and red porch swing along a commercial corridor.  The whimsical street furniture helped to activate the street in this transitioning neighborhood.

ArtsPlace Arts and Culture Temporium Project in Washington, DC.
ArtsPlace Arts and Culture Temporium Project in Washington, DC.

Commercial real estate developers are also engaging in creative placemaking.  The JBG Companies teamed up with Art Whino in Washington, DC for the creation of the N Street Mural Project within the NoMa neighborhood. The project’s mission is to activate a block on N Street using murals as the primary vehicle for activation.  JBG, known for its place-making expertise, was inspired by the place-making efforts of the NoMa BID (Business Development District), and wanted to respond by helping to activate and improve spaces prior to their redevelopment.

Local artists can take advantage of vacant lots and underused properties in their communities by transforming them into hubs of activity and prosperity. In St. Paul, the Minnesota Blue Ox artist group came up with a novel idea to transform a 15-acre plot of land on the former Schmidt Brewery into a mini-golf park that also functions as an urban park.  Blue Ox Mini Golf is creating an artist-designed mini-golf course that functions as an inviting community space to bring people together for fun, outdoor recreation and art appreciation.

Blue Ox Mini Golf Architectural rendering by Andrew Daley with Loom Studio
Blue Ox Mini Golf Architectural rendering by Andrew Daley with Loom Studio

What started out as a way to eliminate graffiti turned into an award-winning project that helps to stimulate a sense of neighborhood pride and collective ownership.  The Hayward (CA) Mural Art Program creates artistic representations of Hayward’s rich cultural diversity.  The murals invite participation from everyone in the community to create something of value in the neighborhoods where they live.  While this program supports multiple blight elimination efforts, beautification, and the promotion of civic pride, its true success shines through in neighborhood enrichment and downtown rejuvenation.

ARTblocks helps Baltimore communities grow an organized plan for transforming the spaces around them into safer, more artful, and livable places that connect people to the environments in which they live. ARTblocks are positive public places created by people for people.   An organic sculpture was created in Druid Hill Park in Baltimore to provide a venue for a story hour at the Druid Hill Park Farmers Market and provided the community’s children with an opportunity to learn, grow, and socialize.  And the community was invited to come watch it grow all summer.

ARTblocks project created by Edmundo Ortega, Joe Kabriel, Deborah Patterson.
ARTblocks project created by Edmundo Ortega, Joe Kabriel, Deborah Patterson.

And lastly, why can’t art be something to sit or play on?   Miami artist Emmett Moore created Points of Pine (2014) which is currently sited in Collins Park as part of the Bass Museum of Art’s tc: temporary contemporary program an encourages physical engagement.   To complement the park’s benches, the artist decided to create two free-standing platforms, with the idea of making (semi-)permanent ‘picnic blankets’ for visitors.

 Emmett Morre, Points of Pine (2014) in use.  Photo: Meg Pukel
Emmett Morre, Points of Pine (2014) in use. Photo: Meg Pukel

Hopefully this post has inspired you to think about how art can help transform a space in your community into a vibrant place for the community to gather and enjoy a little art and culture.

What space in your community could create a sense of place with a little art and culture?


Community Outreach Programs

Housing Opportunity Grant
Housing Opportunity Grants support state and local REALTOR® Associations’ affordable housing activities. The goal of the program is to position REALTORS® as leaders in improving their communities by creating affordable housing

Smart Growth Grant
Smart growth is an approach to development that encourages a mix of building types and uses, diverse housing and transportation options, development within existing neighborhoods, and community engagement. The Smart Growth Program offers state and local REALTOR® Associations to way to engage with government officials, community partners and the general public in planning and designing community’s future.

Planned diversity initiatives makes good business sense. REALTOR® Associations with well-planned diversity programs create a stronger sense of community, particularly in neighborhoods with high concentrations of foreign-born and minority residents who are moving up the socioeconomic ladder and are buying homes.

NAR Placemaking Resources

Placemaking Guide: A Guide to Transform a Public Space into a Community Place
REALTORS® and state and local association staff can learn the details of Placemaking, the kinds of projects placemaking entails, how to organize them, and where to go for assistance and resources.

Placemaking Webinar Series
Our Placemaking Webinar Series will provide more in depth information on the various types of Placemaking and how REALTORS® were involved in Placemaking activities in their communities.

Placemaking Grant
The Placemaking Grant funds the creation of new public spaces, like pocket parks, trails & gardens, in a community. The grant focuses on “lighter, cheaper, quicker” placemaking projects, which can be built under a year and cost less  than $200,000.

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