Hartford, Connecticut, has a rich variety of arts and cultural organizations. In its downtown area alone, there are 45 venues, each with its own focus and audience. Over the years, though, changes to the downtown landscape have discouraged pedestrian activity, isolating the organizations from one another. The iQuilt project, which started in 2007, aimed to address these issues by providing a network of pedestrian-friendly public spaces with enhanced wayfinding that could link these groups into a shared, vibrant, and navigable landscape. In 2011, the NEA Our Town grant provided funding for the design and activation of major parts of this vision.
The downtown area of Hartford has the advantage of being the home to many arts and cultural institutions. In its compact central district, the 45 culturally significant sites include Bushnell Park, the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Capitol and State museums, the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford Stage Company, and a new Cesar Pelli-designed Connecticut Science Center. These, along with Hartford’s many other cultural destinations, generate approximately $245 million in arts-based economic activity each year. Historically, these cultural spaces have played an important role in shaping the city. The downtown area is oriented around Bushnell Park, a 19th century design that once spanned the banks of Park River. Two devastating floods in the 1930s, however, prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to change the river’s course, sending it underground through a series of conduits, which left the surface level barren and caused a devaluation of real estate around the park.
With a population just shy of 125,000, Hartford is Connecticut’s second largest city. While Hartford benefits from being home to several Fortune 500 companies, it also suffers from the problems of many northeastern cities, such as high unemployment and a shrinking population. The city’s cultural organizations have a large, committed audience, with an average annual attendance of 300,000. However, the iQuilt project mangers knew that the audiences at the major arts institutions tend not to be reflective of the city’s diversity and that there was an opportunity for broader programming and outreach efforts.
The downtown area faced a series of challenges. Increasing vacancy rates, a sluggish economy, and a shrinking tax base meant that the city did not have the funds it needed to invest in physical improvements. Having been in decline since the wake of the Park River re-engineering, the area was sorely in need of reinvigoration and rebranding. This need for a new image was particularly true of Bushnell Park, the landscaped spine that linked many downtown destinations that was perceived as unwelcoming and unsafe. There was a cultural need, too, since there was a general consensus that the city’s arts offerings needed to appeal to a larger cross-section of the population. Finding a solution that could address both these issues simultaneously had the potential not only to enhance the quality of urban life but also to also provide a boost to the local economy.
In 2008, two of Hartford’s key cultural leaders, The Bushnell and the Greater Hartford Arts Council, initiated the iQuilt plan. At its core, the iQuilt plan is an urban design vision for creating a walkable, vibrant city. The vision is to develop a network of public spaces and pedestrian routes that would weave together the area’s different cultural sites and institutions. In providing this accessible system of connected public spaces, the iQuilt project aimed to create greater public awareness of Hartford’s many arts assets, and to enhance the public accessibility of them. With public programs and events, and with enhanced wayfinding, the project would not only bring art closer to the community but it would also enliven the day-to-day experience of Hartford’s downtown, and help to spur economic revitalization through increased activity and movement through the district.
This project vision didn’t stop at cultural development. The project also sought to identify a role for the park in the city’s infrastructure, envisioning the IQuilt area as an integral component of Hartford’s storm water management strategy.
To bring this vision to life, a core group of principle partners led by the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts brought together a coalition of over 80 arts and community organizations. According to Bushnell Center executive vice president Ronna Reynolds, the energy and ideas the different partners brought to the project was infective and “every alliance meeting was startlingly positive.” The group’s steering committee included City of Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra and leaders from the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, MetroHartford Alliance, the Business Improvement District, Greater Hartford Arts Council, Metropolitan District Commission, and the Bushnell Park Foundation. The group worked closely with architecture and design professionals, including Los Angeles-based architect (and Hartford native) Doug Suisman and landscape architect Michael Vergason. To ensure an alignment between the aims of the project and the aims of the city, the iQuilt organizers also developed an ongoing partnership with the City’s Department of Economic and Community Development and Hartford’s Art Council.
- ArtPlace America
- Connecticut Commission for the Arts
- Educational Foundation of America
- The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving
The iQuilt team spent two years refining its vision and developing the partnerships needed to carry it out. With the help of a2011 NEA Our Town grant, the group was able to retain Suisman Urban Design to create the plan. After a robust public outreach and design phase, the city adopted the iQuilt plan as the official downtown component of its 10-year master plan. As Reynolds emphasizes, “you can’t invest too much in the process of public engagement.” Their outreach worked: over 3,000 Hartford residents were involved in over a dozen public forums, three symposia, and several interactive workshops throughout the planning process. The plan utilized a number of strategies including urban, architectural, landscape, lighting, and graphic design to create a strong cultural district with greater walkability and dynamic public spaces. To make sure that planning and programming went hand-in-hand, the project team also launched EnvisionFest Hartford, a day-long celebration of creative placemaking with interactive art, free outdoor performances, and over 27,000 attendees.
One of the biggest initial project goals was to put more “feet on the street” downtown, and the project did just that through a wide range of project strategies. Attendance at arts events has substantially increased, a network of pedestrian routes and public spaces now link Hartford’s many cultural organizations into a walkable network, and new investments in real estate are being created. The Walk Score of Downtown Hartford has increased to 90, making it the most walkable neighborhood in the city. New investments include the first movie theatre downtown in 30 years, a surge in residential housing, the upcoming opening of a 600-seat music hall, and transit infrastructure improvements in the District totaling over 38 million dollars. However, not all desired effects were easily measurable. Project partners knew they wanted to increase the vitality of the downtown area, but at the time there were no easy ways to measure this. Now the team is currently at work with the City to begin a study to assess various indicators that can supplement their economic assessments.
Though urban design projects commonly meet with resistance from some community members, organizers reported an overwhelmingly positive response to the iQuilt project. Arts organizations and community residents alike greeted the plans with enthusiasm. Residents who voiced their opinions on social media expressed optimism: “it completely shattered my mental map of Hartford” and “iQuilt events are like being in a dream of Hartford’s future.” The program spawned other initiatives, too. iConnect, for example, now re-purposes empty, street-level storefronts into temporary retail and incubation spaces for creative industries; Winterfest, an arts and winter sports festival, saw its attendance surge to 80,000; and an annual art symposium has been launched as an outgrowth of iQuilt. But “one of the great discoveries of the iQuilt project,” said project director Ronna Reynolds, “was that the arts, as neutral and respected ground, could facilitate communication between so many different agencies and organizations that often have challenges communicating, co-planning, and collaborating,”