Cultural asset map of the Willowbrook Neighborhood, Los Angeles

Asset Mapping

How does a community start to harness its cultural resources? The first step is to identify and map its cultural 'assets' - the local people, organizations, facilities and businesses in the arts and design.

Lessons Learned: 
Community Engagement and Project Communications: An Iterative Processes

By their nature, asset mapping projects require strong community engagement plans in order to collect data.  Most past Our Town asset mapping projects used at least electronic surveys. A few projects engaged further in one-on-one or small group settings, where a more intimate understanding of the information could be acquired. In addition to larger data gathering efforts, many projects also held large-scale public meetings in order to help get the word out about what the project was trying to accomplish.  Often partners started by thinking that a simple survey form would be enough to gather the type of data they needed. Very quickly however, this changed with the realization that a deeper level of engagement would be needed to gain the trust of the community and collect the depth of the information they were looking for.

In the Los Angeles County's Project Willowbrook, for example, project managers held two “artist salons/technical assistance workshops” to ensure their survey efforts were reaching as large a portion of the creative community as possible.  Also during Project Willowbrook, project managers found they had to, “adapt to what produced the best response and engagement based on social dynamics, language barriers and experience.” For example, project artist Rosten Woo did a test deployment of a pedestrian scale billboard to solicit specific input via voicemail and text message system and to signify the project's inquiry. Yet, the billboard was not working — at least not as a way to solicit input. The billboard did raise project awareness, and also sparked conversation between the artist and neighborhood groups about alternative approaches. Eventually, the team landed on the idea of creating a highly visual and interactive survey they called the ‘Willowbrook Workbook.’ The data was reflected back to the community on the internet, on publicly displayed poster boards, in the local libraries, and at community meeting events.

When starting to plan for community engagement it is important to first work with project partners to define what level of engagement is desired.  Do project managers just need to gather information from the community or would they like the community to be involved in the overall decision-making process? 

The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) and the National Coalition for Diaglogue and Deliberation (NCDD) both offer tips to helping project managers decide how to decide which level of engagement is appropriate for a given project. 

Partnerships and Project Logistics: Shared Responsibilities

Our Town asset mapping projects tend to have a strong working relationship between a municipal arts agency (such as an arts commission) and a private arts or community development organization. For example, in Los Angeles, the LA County Arts Commission teamed up with LA Commons (a community based arts organization); and in Tucson, the Tucson Pima Arts Council worked closely with the Warehouse Arts Management Organization (WAMO). In these partnerships the collection, organization, and analysis of data was primarily handled by the partnering non-profit organization, while the outreach and public engagement and overall project management was handled by the municipal arts agency.

University partnerships also provided needed skills and resources. In Philadelphia’s CultureBlocks project, for example, the University of Pennsylvania's Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP) provided data analysis, and in Tucson the University of Arizona School of Geography provided Geographic Information System (GIS) expertise. In general, creating partnerships with local colleges and universities can help to provide tremendous energy and resources to project efforts, but it is important to understand that not all institutions have community engagement programs that can readily pair local initiatives with university resources.  It is often strategic to identify a particular faculty member who is interested in your project to help navigate the larger institutional system.  If a partnership can be established, keep in mind that student and faculty involvement will most likely follow a semester schedule – something that might not be automatically built-in to the way the project is initially structured.

Funding and Resources: Partnering with Local Municipalities

Recognizing the important planning function cultural databases provide, additional funding for asset mapping projects often comes from the municipality itself. In New Orleans, they were able to accomplish their Our Town project with NEA and city general fund dollars.

Many projects also received additional funding from other public and private sources. The CultureBlocks project in Philadelphia received ArtPlace America funding, and in Los Angeles County, they received over $100,000 in-kind and cash funding contributions (including a cash matching grant from the Office of the Los Angeles County Supervisor). As the projects move forward and strategies are created to implement and expand their reach, all are looking to continue with some type of public sector funding.

Goals and Evaluation: Impacting Future Planning Efforts

While other types of projects encompass a broad range of goals and objectives, asset mapping projects typically shared the same goal: to ensure that place defining cultural characteristics, assets, and opportunities were acknowledged and integrated into other planning and development efforts.

In the New Orleans C4 Plan project, they found the opportunity to layer “cultural data with more traditional planning data such as blight, schools, places of worship, zoning and more. For the first time, city planners could literally see the interactions of City-controlled policies (like zoning) and the cultural activity taking place.”

Across the board, Our Town asset mapping project managers report positive changes in their cultural communities due to the work they are doing. In most part, these changes are tied to increased attention to the depth and breath of cultural and artistic assets that are available within the community. Such awareness has helped to bring in new dollars and establish new funding priorities, as well as to bring in a new understanding of how larger planning processes can be augmented by rich cultural data.

More information about evaulation is available on the "Project Process - Measuring Project Results" page.