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Creative Placemaking: Putting the Arts to Work for More Equitable Communities

Post date: 
October 13th, 2015
Article Type: 
AGM Blog Post
Article Topic: 
Arts & Culture

One of the fundamentals of contemporary community development is that you have to build a community where people want to live – not just work, but live their life in a convenient, safe  and opportunity-filled way.  In 2010, the Knight Soul of the Community study investigated just why people move somewhere – it asked  “Great schools, good transit, affordable health care and safe streets all help create strong communities. But is there something deeper that draws people to a city – that makes them want to put down roots and build a life?”  After interviewing more than 40,000 residents over three years, the top three answers for why someone loves living in a place shocked almost everyone – they are “social offerings, openness, and aesthetics.” To those of us working in the arts, this fact said something huge – that if you are trying to build an equitable community, you need the arts at the community development table. 

Any community development practitioner will tell you there is no such thing as a silver bullet when building an equitable community. You need to pursue many different strategies at once – a jobs strategy, safety strategy, land use strategy, transportation strategy, education strategy, housing strategy, etc. – to be successful.   This blog will outline the basics of having an arts-based community development strategy as part of that mix – or what we at the National Endowment for the Arts call “creative placemaking.” 

For the past five years, the NEA has been building support for creative placemaking in America. We have invested over $21 M in communities in all 50 states and Puerto Rico through the Our Town grant program; helped to create a funders collaborative called ArtPlace America[1]; and established many partnerships with other Federal agencies.  Throughout this process, we have learned a lot about what works and what does not – and we are happy to share some of that knowledge with you.  

Four basic strategies exist for creative placemaking activities – anchoring, activating, fixing, and planning


Anchoring refers to when an arts organization acts as the key institution in a neighborhood, providing community identity and/or generating area foot traffic and business. 

This strategy is probably the most commonly understood creative placemaking technique.  If you build the museum, restore the theater, or open the digital studio/maker space, residents and tourists will come and spend money in the surrounding restaurants and shops.

A favorite example of an anchoring project is in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The SteelStacks project has transformed the abandoned Bethlehem Steel plant into a center for arts and culture. At one time, Bethlehem Steel manufactured steel for structures including the Golden Gate Bridge and the Empire State Building. When the plant closed in 1995, it became one of the largest brownfield sites in the United States and left the region with many economic challenges. The site was eventually purchased and partially developed as a casino. The remaining land was reimagined by a local arts group, ArtsQuest.  The SteelStacks campus now includes the outdoor Levitt Pavilion, a jazz café, music hall, and film center.  Additionally, the local PBS affiliate moved its new headquarter building to the site.  Today, the SteelStacks outdoor and indoor performing arts facilities draw two million people a year to this community of eighty thousand people, generating revenues and jobs for the City of Bethlehem.


Activating is when communities bring the arts (visual and performing) to public spaces, making public spaces more attractive, exciting, and safe.  So many wonderful examples of this type of work exist, with festivals and events happening all over the world.

Some of the most innovative work in this area is being done by the Quartier de Spectacle, an entertainment district located in the eastern section of Downtown Montreal.  Montreal has a large number of annual festivals, including its world famous Jazz fest. Local artists and cultural organizations wanted to ensure these festivals would be held downtown in perpetuity.  So, they did something special. Working with the city, they closed off a city street and completely redesigned it as a permanent space for festivals. Infrastructure – including a permanent stage and lighting, and movable, flexible pieces that can serve as lighting, tables, and spaces for vendors – was installed. Making this infrastructure available to festival producers can save festivals $60,000-$100,000 a year in production costs, and keeps many festivals from moving outside the city.  In addition to infrastructure, Montreal has installed permanent digital projectors on 30 buildings, hiring media artists to design projections which are then played on the buildings throughout the year. This amazing outdoor display of digital art is a relatively inexpensive way to activate the buildings and streets in the district.  


Fixing is defined as re-imagining the use of vacant and blighted spaces through arts and design, and how communities use these spaces to connect people to opportunities.

For years now, one well-known fixing strategy has been to fill empty storefronts with new businesses run by artists or designers on a temporary basis.  Using public funds, communities typically cover insurance and start-up costs.  In many of cases, these temporary rentals are continued beyond the subsidized program timeline, creating new permanent businesses in the districts. The Revolve project in Detroit, MI, and Project Storefronts in New Haven, CT, are great recent success stories of this strategy.

Lately, however, many people are using ‘tactical urbanism’ – or ‘pop-ups’ – as a strategy to rethink spaces.  These kinds of activities include temporary public art and parklets. In San Francisco, CA, the Market Street Prototyping Festival takes this work to the next level. It invites artists, designers, and the public to submit ideas that might improve and/or activate Market Street, the city's main artery. The festival is a testing ground for design and public art prototypes. The hope is that, through feedback, the ‘pop-ups’ will inform longer-term projects for temporary or permanent installation under the city's major infrastructure project, Better Market Street, which looks to completely redesign the street by 2018.


Planning strategies include engaging community stakeholders through the arts and soliciting community input and suggestions in community design.

Planning activities are essential for the development of all communities.  The NEA has found that incorporating artists and designers early in the community planning process strengthens outreach and awareness of economic development issues. In 2012, when the city of Flint, MI, started its first city plan in 50 years, it came to the Agency with a unique project proposal to fund artist residencies in neighborhoods. Looking to avoid boring public meetings, it wanted to involve theater, dance, and visual artists in planning, data collection, and conducting community meetings. Essentially, Flint wanted to use artists to bring the public into the equation, giving them seats at the planning table.


Almost every community has artists and arts organizations.  They are one of the best naturally occurring resources in the world.   Many communities engage the arts and use a combination of these four strategies at different stages and places in community development process.  It is quite common to see temporary public art used in tandem with a festival to prepare a site for a permanent cultural facility that will anchor the neighborhood.  The arts are authentic local assets that you can engage to augment what is unique about a place, and at the same time create jobs and opportunities for all residents of a community.

For more detailed examples, check out the ‘Exploring Our Town’ online database available on www.arts.gov, which is home to over 75 examples of creative placemaking projects funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Jason Schupbach is the Director of Design Programs for the National Endowment for the Arts, where he oversees all design and creative placemaking grantmaking and partnerships. Previous to his current position, Jason served Governor Patrick of Massachusetts as the Creative Economy Director, tasked with growing creative and tech businesses in the state.



[1] ArtPlace America (ArtPlace) is a ten-year collaboration among a number of foundations, federal agencies, and financial institutions that works to position arts and culture as a core sector of comprehensive community planning and development in order to help strengthen the social, physical, and economic fabric of communities.www.artplaceamerica.org

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