Philadelphia, PA: Culture Blocks

Map of different colored sections
Photo courtesy of Policy Map

How can a web tool be developed to help people understand the relationship between cultural engagement and economic development?

Philadelphia has a vast trove of creativity- and culture-related assets. Over the city's long history, these assets have stimulated neighborhood-based economic development and brought vitality to the city's different neighborhoods. However, there has never been a primary resource available to access information about the many artists, organizations, and events. For those public and private entities wishing to make new community investments based on these important sites, a new resource, CultureBlocks, was developed to enable broad accessibility to economic, demographic, and geographic data for the purposes of understanding the relationship between culture and neighborhoods and driving future investment decisions.


As Pennsylvania’s largest city, Philadelphia has a centuries-long tradition of cultivating arts and culture. Today the city is home to many significant arts institutions, such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Kimmel Center of the Performing Arts, and the Rodin Museum, and holds one of the largest collections of public art in the nation. Begun in 1872, the Association for Public Art was the first private association in the nation dedicated to the integration of public art and urban planning. Also, Philadelphia has more public murals than any other American city, influenced by the Department of Recreation’s Mural Arts Program begun in 1984.


With over 1.5 million residents, Philadelphia is the country’s 5th most populated city and the largest city in the State of Pennsylvania. The population is diverse, including the 3rd largest population of African Americans in the country at just over 43% of the Philadelphia residents. Within the city, the median household income is just over $52,000 per year. As in any larger city, Philadelphia's creative and cultural assets tend to be clustered into different neighborhood zones and the City knew it needed to identify the particular cultural geographies that existed across the city in order to support potential investments and encourage revitalization in underserved areas with low- moderate income levels.



Like so many American cities, Philadelphia was stung by the economic collapse of 2008. As the city emerged from the recession, local leaders placed an emphasis on neighborhood economic development. As broad discussions across the city considered different options for investment, The Reinvestment Fund (TFR) (a Philadelphia-based Community Development Financial Institution) recognized the important role that art and culture play in neighborhood revitalization and set out to gather data on the existing artistic assets across Philadelphia. TRF discovered that while some arts and cultural data was available from scattered sources, there was not a primary resource that provided a complete picture. To promote the arts and investigate the linkages between artistic energy and neighborhood development, TRF knew this resource of arts information needed to be overlaid with other socioeconomic data, such as median family income, poverty rate, educational attainment, and property values.


Responding to this lack of reliable information, TRF set out to create an online tool that would map Philadelphia’s many cultural assets, allowing users to locate organizations geographically and understand the information in relationship to larger data sets. CultureBlocks, as it came to be called, makes Philadelphia arts and culture data publicly and easily accessible. The tool maps four primary cultural indicators--Nonprofit Arts and Cultural Providers,Creative Businesses, Resident Artists, and Cultural Program Participants--and facilitates public and private investment in specific neighborhoods around clusters of creative activity. It also assists creatively inclined people in locating and identifying each other, therefore increasing awareness and networking. To better inform public policy and investment decisions, TRF would map these sites alongside socioeconomic data. Underscoring its usefulness to outside entities, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said, “this geodatabase is an tool that will serve as an asset to leverage the role that arts, culture, and creative businesses play in helping the City to be a place of choice for businesses and residents.”



Partnership was central to the development and success of CultureBlocks, and a number of key organizations had to take on different roles in order to create a comprehensive resource. Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture, and Creative Economy (OACCE) gathered stakeholders in the arts and culture community early on to guide the development of the website and subsequently managed tool marketing, outreach, and social engagement. The Department of Commerce helped oversee the project and supplied some of the critical data on the tool. The Social Impact of the Arts Projects (SIAP), a research group at the University of Pennsylvania, brought research expertise in gathering and analyzing arts and cultural data. The Reinvestment Fund brought extensive local development knowledge to the team, as well as the mapping platform PolicyMap that underlies the application. The project depended on successfully bringing this varied expertise to the table and distilling all the ideas and information into a single user-friendly web tool.


SIAP conducted a comprehensive analysis of the association between the 4 primary cultural indicators and socioeconomic indicators and geographically coded the information to connect it with census data. The project team compiled a livability index, using demographic diversity, housing quality, and environmental quality as markers. To create an initial online prototype, the data was overlaid onto the PolicyMap platform, communicating the information geographically and interactively. To ensure they effectively conveyed content, TRF orchestrated an extensive focus group strategy, allowing participants to respond to data content and to test demos of the website interface. From the stakeholder engagement process, the City of Philadelphia identified 4 major areas of interest groups for the resource: Real Estate / Economic Development; Artistic / Creative Programming; Asset- based Marketing; and Funder / Capacity Building. They anticipated the use of the tool to be diverse. For example, arts program managers could potentially find partners or identify audiences; commerce and tourism sectors could promote the City’s cultural amenities and communities; and city planners could include cultural activities as a component of district and neighborhood plans. Once it was refined, taking into account public feedback, TRF launched a beta version, which enabled user groups to be brought together to refine the data for the 4 primary cultural indicators and the web developers to identify glitches that may have slipped through the development phase. OACCE then publicized the site, holding a press event and launching it publicly.


CultureBlocks pulled together critical data, expressed through the 4 primary cultural indicators, on a public scale that had been unprecedented in Philadelphia. “No other site exists in the city with access to so much geographic data related to the arts,” said PolicyMap Director Maggie McCullough. As a result of the resource, public and private investors can make informed decisions about linking developments with arts- and culture-related assets. The City of Philadelphia’s Commerce Department used the tool to help design a community development block grant recoverable loan program to encourage business attraction and expansion in the City’s neighborhood commercial corridors. The Philadelphia Cultural Fund used the tool as a means of marketing to additional organizations that might be eligible for funding, resulting in double the number of applicants from 2012 to 2013. The resource has also promoted the City’s cultural assets for tourism and cultural recreation. The City Planning Commission used the tool to quickly and thoroughly identify arts/cultural assets for their 2035 neighborhood plans. Project leaders report the process of creating the resource fostered new partnerships among arts and culture organizations and encouraged nonprofits and service organizations to incorporate the arts into their activities.


The website is only as useful as long as it provides current information. There are costs associated with resources continued relevancy—data updates, research, web development, and web server space. Using funds secured by the City, CultureBlocks is being updated over the summer/fall of 2014. Organizers report that they have been contacted by other cities interested in pursuing similar strategies. The project’s core vision was to make information accessible to outside entities, setting up the data that others can make actionable. Though the project data will undoubtedly catalyze many projects across Philadelphia, many of the project’s impacts will be facilitated by the website itself. Since its launch in Spring 2013, CultureBlocks has had nearly 40,000 page views from 9,000 users. Along with this success, however, project leaders have found the concept of “if you build it, they will come” not to entirely hold true. Use of the website has been dependent on good, consistent marketing efforts, including case studies, panel presentations, email messages, and public events.


Culture Blocks Website
A free mapping tool that supports people making decisions about place and creativity in Philadelphia

Cultural Ecology, Neighborhood Vitality, and Social Wellbeing
A Culture Blocks Final Research Report

  • ArtPlace America
  • City of Philadelphia