Street Seats bench

Cultural District Planning

Cultural districts can create the dynamic environments that foster interaction across spaces, people, and disciplines.

Lessons Learned: 
Engagement and Communications: Working within a Local Context

For large-scale projects such as creating cultural district plans, gathering community input is a key component of project process.  Ideas from the community are needed not only in terms of informing potential design decisions, but also to help raise awareness about the larger planning efforts at hand, and to help lay the foundation for future support from elected officials.

In Dubuque, IA, where they worked to create the Historic Millwork District, project managers discussed the necessity of “meetings with local and state government in order to identify barriers and opportunities” as a key component of the plan’s success.  Coordinating conversations with public officials was also done in tandem with a formal communications plan. Project manager Cindy Steinhauser explained, “each event also had a very specific marketing plan that was adhered to and concentrated on the two weeks prior to the event.”  In Little Rock where they looked to develop Main Street as a “creative corridor”, project manager Caran Curry said,  ‘The Mayor had the vision and worked his magic of getting everyone on board for this project.’


Types of Engagement Techniques: Most Our Town cultural district planning projects used a range of public outreach techniques including: public charrettes, public meetings, surveys, meetings with local and state government officials, social media, media releases, articles in local/regional papers and magazines. In many cases these outreach efforts surfaced long held, but unsaid, desires on behalf of the local community to create change in the area. 

“One of the biggest surprises we had was the realization that there were so many aspirations for our beleaguered Hennepin Avenue,” said Tom Hoch, President of the Hennepin Theatre Trust. In the Plan-It Hennepin project they also looked beyond traditional public engagement techniques and explored activities such as creating a 42-foot long model, and organizing street wide activities including photography, spoken word, and literature ("stories").

In Dubuque, IA, they created a banner project that was designed as a competition that was held in partnership with a local university.  This project allowed the Dubuque Main Street program to partner with the Convention and Visitors Bureau to promote the events and attract the general public to the various project related activities.

Funding and Resources: Pulling from a Variety of Sources

In general, most projects Our Town creative district planning projects showed less funding support from the philanthropic community than other projects and more support from state and local sources. 

In Little Rock, AR, where they worked on the Main Street Creative Corridor project they were also able to utilize $1.2 million in funding from the Environmental Protection Agency to help implement the plan’s low-impact development streetscapes.  In other projects such as Dubuque and San Diego where they created cultural districts in low-economic neighborhoods, they were also were able to gather funding from private sector philanthropic institutions and individual donors. 

Partnerships and Logistics

Just as strong community engagement efforts are at the heart of many cultural district planning efforts, these projects are held together by strong public/private partnerships that bring together the strength and expertise of local governments and partner organizations who have a strong desire to bring development efforts to the area.


Leadership: Most every project felt it was important for one organization to take on the primary leadership role but to also acknowledge where the other partners need to take the lead for their particular tasks.  In San Angelo, project manager Rick Weise said, “from the beginning of the project, each group has maintained a leadership role in partnership with the other.” Sometimes the primary partners was an arts based organizations (Minnesota), and sometimes it was a neighborhood and economic development organizations (Dubuque and San Diego), and sometimes it was the city itself (Little Rock).


Regulations: Because district plans touch on a large number of existing regulations and planning ordinances, many need to deal head-on with existing municipal codes and policies.  This task was particularly true for Minnesota’s Plan-it Hennepin project where plans for a new cultural district fell within the same area as an existing Business Improvement District – a downtown improvement district made up of property owners and commercial tenants who work together to promoting development in the area and improve the area's quality of life.   Because the cultural district’s boundaries were not exactly contiguous with the BID, project managers needed to have a careful understanding about how the BID worked both from a regulatory and an administrative standpoint.


Larger Economic Context: More so than other projects, cultural district planning projects were much more influenced by larger local, regional, and national economic issues that impacted the area. In San Diego, project mangers mentioned that “the economy is now back on track so additional resources and funding will become more accessible to implement the many aspects of the plan.” Or Minnesota they found that “our timing was very good...and we were able to have a lot of local support because there was a level of interest in finding new ways of addressing our downtown issues.”

Goals and Evaluation: Physical Changes that Inspire Hope

Often, cultural district plans set out with the goal of not only physically transforming the city, but also of “getting people to focus on arts and culture in our city as a vehicle for positive change” (Minneapolis).  Summed up well by Caran Curry in Little Rock, “our project reflected the desire to “bring together partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors to strategically shape the physical and social character of [the city] around arts and cultural activities thereby animating public and private spaces, rejuvenating structures and streetscapes, improving local business viability and public safety, and enabling diverse people to come together to celebrate, inspire, and to be inspired.”


Evaluation: Most projects that were lead by the municipality engaged in some type of evaluation including workign to create project specific evaluation measures (Minneapolis) or using existing city-based project evaluation criteria (Dubuque).

You can read an evaluation of the Minneapolis project project with a suggested data indicator system here.

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