Installation of Ground Cover

Public Space

Public spaces are integral to successful community development. Art can play a role in defining the form and identity of these spaces.

Lessons Learned: 
Engagement and Communications: A Key Project Component

Most project mangers who oversaw Our Town public space projects talked about community engagement as being a critical component for a successful project.

“We recognized from the onset, that substantial public input would be required for a successful vision to take hold,” said Ronna Reynolds in Hartford, CT.

The range of people and organizations that projects engaged were as varied as the communities they served and included: artists, arts organizations, the design community, neighborhood associations and residents, city officials, religious organizations, business owners, neighborhood organizations, the general public, youth, and the elderly.

Advice from project mangers included:

  •  “Don’t underestimate the amount of time community engagement can take.” (Burlington, VT)
  •  “Expect less input as the project design moves along from concept to schematic to design development and construction drawings” (Driggs, ID)
  •  “Have faith that your community will raise to the expectations of your vision with both resources and their presence.” (Jackson, MS)
  •  “Identify your community’s best, most authentic arts asset, involve all the community, and never give up.” (Wilson, NC)
  •  “Be sensitive to the nuances of your community so that your can change your engagement strategy midstream if necessary.” (Burlington, VT)
  •  “Start with lots of community input and leave your personal agenda at the door….. carefully identify and get consensus of your audience.” (Berea, KY)

Many projects also directly enlisted the arts to help gather community input.  In Burlington, VT, project organizer Sara Katz explained, “we had a pop up tent - branded with the name of our project "imagine City Hall Park.” We had drawing materials for children and did video interviews with anyone who wanted to (structured with a man/woman interviewer and short two question.) We also used music and art events to attract people, and had imagery drawing led by a two person artist/interviewer team.”

Funding and Resources: Working with Traditional Sources

Most Our Town public space projects pursued a wide range of funding sources. 

Public sources included municipal capital improvement funds, city general funds, tourism funding, sales tax, and tax increment financing.

Private funds included corporate sponsorships, and individual donations; and philanthropic donations ranged from larger national funders (such as ArtPlace America and the Kresge Foundation) to smaller, more regional, family foundations.

Since many public space projects are longer-term investments to see the project through to final construction, a number project also described the need to, “keep the project on the front burner and priority list of the Mayor and City Council.”  

Once constructed, projects also had to figure out ways in which the space would be tended to in the long term both in terms of maintenance and in terms of programming.  In Charleston, SC, where they looked to create a new plaza outside the newly constructed Gaillard Center for performing arts, they knew that, “the precinct would become an active proponent of art and performance in Charleston public space, and it would support the activation, aesthetic improvement and economic performance of the immediate area.”  To support these future project activities the project team is looking to future project funding to come from the City of Charleston’s Parks and Recreation Department and from general operating funds from the new Center. A similar arrangement can be seen in Tacoma, WA where the Tacoma Art’s Museum general operating fund will help to further support future maintenance and activities in the newly created adjacent plaza.

Partnerships and Logistics: Flexibility and Determination

After working through numerous project challenges, project managers from Our Town public space projects had advice to others:

  • Working with Neighborhood Opposition:  “Often proposed projects can rub against adjacent neighbors for fear of increased activity to the area.  It’s important to keep the conversation going forward at a measured pace and to focus on the positive potential for change.” (Charleston, SC)
  • Working with Volunteers: “Be careful with volunteer time – too many meetings can cause burnout.” (Driggs, ID)
  • Working with Artists: “Include artists on project advisory committees – they can provide much very thorough review of proposals, designs, and submittals.” (Driggs, ID)
  • Project Management: “Remain flexible, trusting the process as you go.” (Covington)   “Shifts to the project are going to happen.  Your projects should be designed with enough flexibility for the artists and for the organizations to adjust and make the work stronger.” (Last Chance)
  • Partnerships: “Each partner can make considerable contributions in terms of communicating stories to the media, bringing additional funds or human resources to the project, and creating a sense of connection to the work.” (Providence)   “Leverage your cross-sector partnerships!” (Baltimore)  “Asking trusted companies for assistance can be invaluable for helping a project reach its goals (signmakers, builders, movers etc.)” (Grand Rapids)
  • Regulations: The majority of public space projects also found that they came up against some type of regulations. From Department of Transportation signage regulations, to building permits, preservation regulations, design review committees, special event permits, and zoning regulations.  Advice from Grand Rapids mirrored the sentiment of many project managers, “It’s important to maintain close contact with the city and make sure no one is surprised.”  In Charleston, SC said project managers approached the issue of regulations, “Actively, strategically and ultimately effectively.”
Goals and Evaluation: Using Proxy Measures

Many public space projects found that the most successful evaluation strategy was one that targeted very specific project indicators that could be relatively easy to measure either by observation or by survey.  These indicators often represented larger public goals (e.g. using sales data from adjacent businesses to help measure overall use for public spaces.)

For example, in Burlington where they engaged citizens in a four month project to establish a new master plan for City Hall Park, project managers surveyed users of the space on their perceived sense of safety and used reports on increased/decreased of dispatches from the police department. These type of indicators are often needed because the ability to measure exact project effects can be time consuming and costly.  As one project managers said, “The more objective the data we sought to collect, the more impossible it was.”

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