The Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation (JCNI), a nonprofit foundation focused on community revitalization, was in the midst of developing a land use master plan with local area residents for The Village at Market Creek in southeastern San Diego, when it was reasoned that such a plan would need to consider the role of the arts. With the support of Our Town, the group set out to design and plan an ‘arts overlay’ that could be incorporated into the master plan already under development.
Though San Diego tends to conjure images of sandy beaches and craggy coastlines, the city of 1.3 million people includes vast stretches of inland areas with all the challenges that any big city must address. The Diamond Neighborhoods, a conglomeration of districts less than ten miles southeast of San Diego’s bustling downtown, is one such area. The area is connected to the city with a rail line, but it has faced long-term economic challenges, evidenced by abandoned buildings. Chollas Creek runs through the neighborhood and provides a unifying natural element. At the hub of the Diamond Neighborhoods, a nearly 60-acre area called “The Village” is in the midst of a transformation.
One of the oldest suburban areas in San Diego, the Diamond Neighborhoods are home to many diverse communities, including Hispanic, African American, Filipino, Lao Somali, Samoan, Sudanese, Caucasian, and Chamorro residents. The 2010 census accounted for a neighborhood that is 53% Hispanic and 21% African American. The area’s economic conditions have long been troubling. The median household income is roughly half the median for the county and much less than the San Diego region. As is often the case, economic conditions have had physical consequences, leaving the area spotted with empty lots and vacant buildings.
The Diamond Neighborhoods has all the advantages of being an aggregate of different communities: it is diverse, and there are on-the-ground community groups with the capacity to organize. Yet what the neighborhood needed was a way to help bring together the neighborhood’s nine distinct cultural groups and create bridges between government, nonprofits, artists, and the broader San Diego community. Creating an arts overlay component that could converge with the larger master plan (already underway) would be targeted to provide needed urban coherence and give the community a sense of common identity that had been missing.
- Listening: We listen to the community (via meetings, focus groups, surveys) to understand the most critical needs in the neighborhood;
- Learn: Together, we learn about previous attempts to address the need, underlying factors that have contributed to it, and key items to consider in our decision making;
- Design: We design the project through facilitated conversations where we identify priorities, select consultants, and map out scope, budget, and timeframe;
- Do: We do (“implement”) the work, which over the years has included transforming underutilized properties, installing public artwork, and launching ownership mechanisms for community members.
To address these needs, the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture and the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation teamed up to plan the project. “The core vision,” as Victoria Hamilton, then Executive Director of the Commission for Arts and Culture put it, “was to develop an arts district plan for The Village that would serve as the arts overlay for the area’s comprehensive community plan.” In other words, art would become the unifying element for the community’s developing land use plan. With JCNI’s focus on resident involvement, the team would use its “listen-learn-design-do” strategy, in which the community leads in the visioning process for revitalization.
The city’s Commission for Arts and Culture partnered with JCNI knowing it had longstanding organizational capacity based in the neighborhood. JCNI was able to rally residents and community stakeholders to provide input into the process. For the design work, the team engaged the San Diego-based firm Bennett Peji Design to oversee branding and the aesthetic dimensions of the plan. MIG, a California urban planning firm, directed the project’s land use plan. Both firms had already been involved in the community’s ongoing comprehensive community planning process. Underscoring the central role of the arts in the revitalization plan, the Commission and JCNI also worked closely with San Diego-area cultural organizations— The San Diego Museum of Art, Mingei International Museum, San Diego Museum of Man, and the Old Globe, for example—as a way to develop broad arts engagement and tap their expertise as established arts institutions.
JCNI first assembled a 12-member advisory team, including representatives from planning firms, arts experts and community members. Their aim was to use the arts overlay as a way to fine the most productive synergies between the existing plans. From the outset, community participation was paramount. To coordinate involvement, JCNI held six charrettes, or “listening events,” each one building on the other, during which residents could convey their priorities. Following a national Request for Qualifications, JCNI chose two artists—one local (comprised of a team of three) and one national—to help program these events. They kept the community apprised of developments by presenting progress at Village Center meetings, including having the mayor of San Diego hold a public unveiling and press conference for the completed plan.
By developing a carefully considered arts plan, vetted by residents, JCNI was able to make a valuable contribution to an area-wide masterplan. This contribution not only provided important amenities for residents, the larger plan will help to enhance the community’s economic opportunity, and integrate the Chollas Creek into the urban experience.
- Strengthening community identity through ownership of public art and cultural landmarks and enhanced understanding of how arts contribute to a thriving community,
- Gaining support for the value of connecting people of all ages with arts and culture education opportunities;
- Engaging cultural communities to build upon existing cultural exchange and dialogue;
- Building resident pride in the community, which studies have shown to increase self-esteem and, by extension, overall health;
- Strengthening the overall fabric of the community through ongoing dialogue and exchange among neighbors and neighborhoods, cultures, and local agencies and organizations.
Citing the success of JCNI’s Our Town process, the San Diego Foundation launched (and funded) a creative place-making initiative called “The San Diego Gathering Place.” Using a similar model, the program will support two projects per year in the San Diego region. The project also led to a surprising partnership opportunity with University of California San Diego and the City of San Diego Civic Innovation Lab’s “Vacant Lot Initiative.” San Diego Civic Innovation Lab is a collaborative incubator for civic action, linking municipal government, university partners, and community groups to help transform city-owned vacant neighborhood lots into new sites for community arts education and display, so that these sites can help contribute to the area’s cultural and economic vitality.