Tuesday, 24 February 2015 11:02

Placemaking and unmaking

Placemaking and unmaking

How is it possible for creative placemaking projects to be more inclusive?  What would that look, sound, and be like? For the most part, these projects occur in either underserved communities or they try to bridge the gap between unevenly developed communities and sectors; uneven, that is, from the standpoint of the more financially prosperous partner involved.  Because these projects seem to naturally rely on long-established cultural channels, they tend to reflect the interests of individuals and entities already supportive of the existing social framework.  This means that, if left unchecked or incurious, they can exacerbate existing structural inequalities -be they racial, ethnic, financial, environmental, or gendered.

Given this scenario, how do we engage with and help secure creative placemaking as a practice that really does benefit all parties involved, especially the less privileged?  A first step could be to understand why there is a need for placemaking and what its function is meant to be.  Although for some of us in the field this type of cultural work may sound novel, it is indeed a strategy conditioned by research from different fields that have guided, and continue to guide, economic development work across our country.  In other words, there is a trajectory of development that we can learn from.  This hindsight makes the all too common results of modern-day development not so mysterious, as many of us can see from the outcomes of both domestic revitalization projects and specific global endeavors in state-building.  Whereas the practice of artmaking may still be enigmatic for many Americans, there is little that remains mystifying about city planning, transit layouts, zoning, real estate, neighborhood displacement, and economic inequality.

Often, it is poor communities and communities of color that experience the side-effects of revitalization projects.  So the question becomes: how can heightened artistic and cultural competency lead community development or planning towards different outcomes?  An option would be creative-placemaking methods that consist of equitable participation from cultural sites and art organizations already in place within a specific community, rather than methods that focus on finding 'innovative' ways of absorbing a targeted community's immaterial labor, cultural network, and social capital.  We believe part of the appeal should be working with communities of color and poor communities to help leverage their own sense of place -this is where ethics comes into play directly.  In this regard, NALAC is quite hopeful about the more beneficial approaches creative-placemaking initiatives are currently exploring.

For example, ArtPlace and the NEA's Our Town initiative prioritize the value that arts and culture have in communities.  ArtPlace describes itself as a "ten-year collaboration that exists to position art and culture as a core sector of comprehensive community planning and development in order to strengthen the social, physical, and economic fabric of communities".  By focusing on "creative placemaking, the set of practices in which art and culture are used to help strengthen a place", they intend to support successful models in effort to make these more prevalent.  Our Town is "the NEA's primary creative placemaking grants program, and invests in projects that contribute to the livability of communities and place the arts at their core".   A key aspect of Our Town's work is documenting and learning from the projects they support in effort to increase our overall knowledge of how to make this process more beneficial for different communities.  Ultimately, the goal for both these initiatives is to circumvent foreseeable obstacles to this social practice while, at the same time, do away with the unnecessary and usually negative byproducts of development.

A key thing to bear in mind about placemaking as a practice is that part of its logic includes displacement.  This leaves many of us struggling with how our current communities and their pre-existing places are unmade to give way to placemaking.  For  the most part, these concerns spring from some fairly unoriginal ideas about freedom and cultural knowledge which, in the end, prompt our search for a social ethics that is able to guide the manner in which arts and cultures are placed at the service of economic development.

One thing we can do is look at what the descriptions and language that serve to define arts-based community development projects (placemaking) reveal about the kinds of knowledge shaping the general understanding of this social practice.  The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies provides an excellent compilation of material and information that is really geared towards a comprehensive view on this subject.  Similarly, the Executive Summary on 'Creative Placemaking' put forth in 2010 by the National Endowment for the Arts offers a key perspective -one that continues to resonate strongly with the field of arts and cultures.  When it comes to our need for a critical framework in terms of the challenges in placemaking, Roberto Bedoya, a long-standing and invaluable voice in our field, published two recent articles that are vital for any meaningful discussion (1) (2).

As an evolving practice, placemaking consists of a worthwhile synthesis between work and research from fields previously understood more separately, like anthropology, economics, sociology, urban planning and of course democracy-building.  In that light it is very much an example of co-operation between particular fields of research now focusing on a community development project.  This in itself is significant because part of the purpose of this work is to ultimately increase collaboration and modes of cooperation among our broader populace.  The breadth of these efforts can leave many of us with far more questions than answers concerning the goals of such social projects, the means by which they are pushed to realization, and their outcomes.

The 'place-based' field refers to the professionalization of this social practice and is meant to generate, among other things, a new form of community leadership, one that understands the importance of artists within their own communities along with their roles in creative placemaking.  Over the last fifty years, this emerging field has incurred a significant amount of complex knowledge on development as an ongoing, profitable enterprise along with the kind of corresponding national and regional infrastructure (public and private entities to obtain and mediate  everything from informational, financial, and cultural resources) needed to secure its ongoing-ness.  This means that communities and new leaderships must be savvy about perceiving the many possible relationships between arts and economic development as situationally variable; they must be clear on what they are going into, what their goals are, and what everyone is accountable to.

Such current ideas about Placemaking are part of an ongoing and fairly organic conversation for NALAC.  We also see how most of us out in the field find ourselves unable to separate the many individual projects associated with placemaking -their intention and goals- from their actual outcome.  It's important to hold on to this connection between intention and impact, especially because it often seems the main result of this activity is to precisely generate a discourse and set of policy changes that legitimize furthering these efforts while, at the same time, focusing away from the direct outcome or effects of creative placemaking.   Given this translucency, how are creative placemaking projects held accountable?  Beyond meeting an initial criteria for funding, what and whom are they accountable to?



The National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC) is a legacy organization investing in the Latino heritage of this nation. For over 25 years, NALAC has built a strong foundation for the promotion of Latino arts and culture and its advocacy efforts have advanced issues of cultural equity and raised the visibility and understanding of Latino artistic and cultural expression. The National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC) is the nation's leading nonprofit organization exclusively dedicated to the promotion, advancement, development, and cultivation of the Latino arts field. In this capacity, NALAC stimulates and facilitates intergenerational dialogues among disciplines, languages, and traditional and contemporary expressions. NALAC serves thousands of Latino artists and hundreds of organizations representing a national and international community of multiple Latinidades; a network that crosses many cultures across the Latino Diaspora.

For more information visit our website at www.nalac.org  or like us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Nalac.arts1.

Main photo: The Buena Vista Gardens Building Mural by Lead Artist Valeria Aranda in collaboration with the San Anto Cultural Arts Mural Program, 2006.
This mural was painted by San Anto Cultural Arts.
Top things to know photo: Magdalena Gomez from TRGGR Radio.

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