Dance performance

Understanding Community

Understanding the community a creative placemaking project takes place in is essential to developing successful outcomes. Below are recommendations on how to connect projects to place.

Lessons Learned: 
Build on Local Assets

Creative placemaking projects require an extensive knowledge about the communities they take place in.  Creative Placemaking only works when it's built on local stregnths. What are the local stregnths, or 'assets' of your community?  What are the cultural assets, e.g. artists, cultural organizations and business? Listening to locals is essential. Our Town project managers emhasize how understanding their area’s history and people help to inform their projects’ larger goals and strategies: 

In Portland, Oregon, the My Story project team, "Crafted our ideas by listening to people. Every community has a different set of needs and challenges. You have to have an understanding of who the community is and what the place is in order to responded to peoples’ needs.  And it’s a give-and-take relationship.  You want to give communities something they’re really going to value, but what you value is not always the same as what they value.” As Sheryl Noethe, Artistic Director for the Missoula Writing Collaborative and Montana’s current Poet Laureate phrased it, when a project emerges from a knowledge of the lives of the people and the issues that are found within any particular place, “the project just makes sense.”

How To: Think About Cultural Assets

  • Starting a project often begins with the central question of identifying local resources and assets.  When thinking specifically about local cultural assets it important to keep a broad definition. In her TEDxWDC talk, Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson helps to expand upon the traditional definition of cultural assets as things such as art galleries or libraries, to include, “activities such as gatherings in parks and community centers where group traditions are maintained and/or invented, [and] church-based artistic activit[ies].”  
Know About Other Planning Efforts

Many cities, and some rural areas, have comprehensive plans or masterplans already in place that local officials are working to enact. It is important to understand what the focus of those plans is when starting to formulate new project ideas. Ideally, new creative placemaking projects work hand in hand with these previously envisioned community goals.

In El Paso, Texas, for example, project planning for the Union Plaza/Downtown Green Space Connection project coincided with Plan El Paso, a community-driven comprehensive planning process for the city that supported better transit options and pedestrian-friendly development. The project was able to support these goals, which enabled it to have the political support needed to succeed.

How-To: Understand Different Types of Municipal Plans

  • Knowing how to understand different municipal plans means navigating the complex world of the many types of plans that cities and towns undertake.  The most general type of municipal plan is called a Comprehensive Plan.  It looks at the entire range of issues that impact an area – from infrastructure, to the economy, to quality of life issues. Additional kinds of plans focus on more specific topics such as neighborhood plans, downtown plans, or community development plans.  Each plan is generally divided into specific sections which layout the visions, goals, and objectives for the area’s potential policies and programs.  It is important to carefully examine existing plans to understand how community visions are articulated and who specifically was involved in their creation.
Respect the Unique History and Culture of Each Community

Developing projects that support the larger community means entering into many conversations with different stakeholder groups in order to learn about their unique perspectives, histories, and modes of creative expression. As Roberto Bedoya from the Tucson Pima Arts Council writes, “Success looks very different from one community to the next, depending on local values and systems, which are influenced by the history, social capital, culture, politics, and economic conditions of a region.” Often, creative placemaking project managers are already involved with their target communities.  When that is not the case, it is important to make the effort to fully understand the residents -  their stories and concerns so that these can be reflected in the goals and vision of the larger project.

In Dubuque, Iowa where the Arts in the District project engaged the arts to help activate the Historic Millwork District, they learned that the project’s success was due in large part to the fact that it connected the dots between the history of the buildings, streets, spaces, and people from the area. Project manager Cindy Steinhauser advises others that, “where history is concerned, respect it; be a good student of it. Then tell as honest and as authentic a story as you can.”  Similarly, Susan Mosey from Detroit remarked, “In the research that we conducted for this project, I became much more aware of the rich history of the district…….What I learned showed me that we have a responsibility to pay tribute to the past and to create programming that is accessible to all members of our community.”

How-To: Find Sources for Local History

  • Depending on the size of a community, sources of local history can vary widely from existing published books to the unwritten stories that have been passed down at local community gatherings.  If published information is not available, it is often worth asking community leadership to identify those community members that can “tell the story” of the area. Capturing these stories can often become part of the project process itself by capturing stories in video or audio format at larger community meetings, or creating video footage during the project planning phase which can later be used in a final video or publication that tells the story of the larger project. 
Find Allies in Many Different Places

Though a project may happen within specific neighborhood boundaries, it is important to foster town (or tribe), city, county, state, and national relationships that can support the project while it is being implemented. Such connections can build longer-term resiliency for the project that can help to sustain it beyond the initial grant period. In Houston, TX, project leader Carroll Parrott Blue learned that, “Allies in key leadership positions are extremely helpful. We found allies in surprising places, and so we learned to share our plans with everyone.”  Relationships can be built with public officials, non-profit arts organizations, community service providers, educational organizations, or any others that touch in some way on the larger vision of the project. 

It is often those groups and organizations that are only partially related to the project vision that feel the most inspired by it.  Creative Placemaking provides them with new ways of thinking about issues, and new ideas for how to solve thier problems.  In Olympia, Washington, the Canoe Journey project managers made sure they got others involved in the project. We took, “supporters out into canoes and built new relationships for the future. We were happily surprised by the strong response from community members outside of Squaxin who were so eager to support the gift-making workshops that we actually had waiting lists. People began bringing Native school groups from other districts. We found new apprentices to pair with established artists.”

How To: Work with Elected Officials

  • Elected officials appreciate being kept appraised of activities going on in their area and often like to lend their support to initiatives which share a common values for what the city or state is working to create.  Learning how to communicate effectively with elected officials is key as most are pulled in numerous directions throughout the day.  It is important to develop specific, concise, project descriptions and directly outline how the project helps to implement key goals the official supports.  Doing this can help keep meetings with officials on target and productive.  The arts also can play are role within meetings with public officials as policy makers have found that one of most effective means of persuading elected officials about an issue is to tell direct and compelling stories about the people that are affected.  Bringing in work that represents local stories about specific people in the community can be an essential tool for communicating the depth and breath of the way a creative placemaking project touches peoples’ lives.