Flint, MI: Imagine Flint Master Plan
How can a city working to reinvent itself engage the arts at the center of their comprehensive planning efforts?
As a city known more today for population loss and industrial decline than as the historic home of auto-manufacturing, the City of Flint, Michigan, is working to turn itself around. By embarking upon its first city-wide comprehensive planning effort in 50 years, the city has started to create a blueprint for its future. Arts leaders saw the opportunity to get the local creative community involved with the planning efforts as a chance to change the conversation about why and how the arts could be part of Flint’s future revitalization. The Our Town project funded the incorporation of arts and culture in the City of Flint’s Master Plan.
With a special place in the American psyche, Flint is a city in flux. As the historic home to General Motors, the city was at one time the second largest city in the state of Michigan (today it is the seventh). The city’s decline started in the 1980s following the closing of many General Motors plants. The decline became so precipitous that in 2011 the state had to appoint an emergency manager to help the local administration weather its economic storm. Now working to recreate itself, the city embarked upon a new Flint master planning process as a way to change the conversation about what the city could become. Spearheaded by Flint’s Mayor, the master planning process started in March 2011 with the aim of promoting equity, livability, economic vitality, and sustainable development.
Many challenges associated with decline are readily apparent within the city, among them wide-scale residential abandonment, high rates of poverty, lack of commercial vitality, and public safety concerns. Given the stark economic realities the city faces, local administrators have had to focus on addressing the most immediate of citizen needs. Through this, Flint’s strong arts community remained a hidden asset. With a wide range of artists and institutions−from a team of nationally recognized, teenage spoken-word artists, to an award-winning art museum−the county is home to more than eighty arts and cultural organizations and approximately 15,000 independent artists.
For many years, Flint has relied on federal and state assistance to help the city continue with its day-to-day operations. With local leaders focused on addressing immediate needs, there was no time or funding available to create a long-term vision for where the city was going. So, when a comprehensive planning process was undertaken for the first time in 50 years, it was seen as an essential effort for helping the city turn itself around. Local arts leaders saw that initial planning efforts did not include arts and culture as part of the planning framework, however, and knew that they needed to advocate for including the creative community as part of the city’s larger efforts.
As president of the Greater Flint Arts Council, Greg Fielder said, “Our vision was simple. We wanted the city to keep the arts at the table during this whole process of reinventing themselves.” Knowing that the arts have played a large role in helping the community shape its identity and foster economic development, project partners were aware that they had to be a central, strong component of the city’s new master planning efforts, giving the local creative community an opportunity to identify and rally around some common goals. Jennifer Acree, Project Director for the BEST Project—which supplies technical assistance and capacity building support to the community's nonprofit sector—recognized that by incorporating arts and culture into the City of Flint’s Master Plan the project had the potential to “help the community's arts and cultural organizations determine how best to focus their work over the next five to ten years. And it will help address important provisions, laws, and ordinances to remove any potential barriers that could get in the way of public art projects.”
The two primary partners that came together to shepherd the project were the Greater Flint Arts Council (GFAC) and the City of Flint. Greg Fiedler, President and CEO of GFAC, was the administrative leader in the 2003 Community Cultural Plan, which had attracted more than 70 organizations to participate. Dayne Walling, Mayor of the City of Flint, spearheaded the development of the master planning process and led the campaign to get it funded and underway. Together, they worked to support the idea of making the arts a key component of the planning process and sought the funding and the resources to pull it together. Other project partners included: Morrie Warshawski and Susan Wood (who had helped create the 2003 Community Cultural Plan), the Flint Institute of Arts, and the BEST Project, a program of the United Way of Genesee County. With additional funding from ArtPlace America, the project was able to hold ten separate events, including a public art festival where artists were invited to submit proposals to transform a former factory site into a temporary public space as a way to showcase a potential future use for the property.
Once the project team was able to get underway, one of their initial tasks was to encourage artists and arts administrators to join the various master plan committees in order to ensure that their perspectives were integrated into each of the master plan areas of focus, such as Health and Welfare, Safety, and Economic Development. Additionally, nine artists were hired to perform residencies in Flint’s nine separate wards, where they worked to engage in creative activities as part of their work to gather ideas and data on the community’s aspirations for the future. These ideas were then brought back to the facilitation team and summarized by the project consultant for a report to the city. The project ended with a culminating event, free and open to the public at the Rotunda in Flint City Hall, where the artists delivered a report and demonstrated their work in each of Flint's wards (e.g. slide show, videotapes, poetry readings, scenes from a play, music performed by ward residents, etc.)
With the high amount of community participation and media attention, the project was able to bring light to how the arts can be used to transform the city, both for citizens and public officials. Project partners felt the level of discourse on planning in the city was deeper and richer because of the involvement of the creative sector, and that the level of average citizen involvement had been broadened and deepened as well. As Gred Fielder said, “from ward to ward, artists and citizens talked with one another, ate with one another, told their personal stories and turned them into plays, wrote poems, cleaned up neighborhoods, re-created a local skate park, created gardens, crafted sculptures from recycled materials, performed in public service announcements, formed drum lines making music together and lit lanterns lighting up the skies over their formerly abandoned public parks.” He continued, “it is difficult to express the positive cumulative effect of these efforts to those outside of Flint who have no inkling how much local citizens hunger for a boost in their sense of civic pride, relief from the negative stereotypes inflicted on Flint from the outside media and an island of serenity from the often daily difficulties of living in a city at the tail end of a downward spiral. The short-term positive results are easy to see.”
Just recently having completed the planning process, the project team is strategizing on how to integrate the lessons and the recommendations of the arts and culture planning efforts. Because of the work done by the artists and the facilitation team, project leaders feel that there is now a greater understanding about the importance of arts and culture by city leaders than they originally thought there would be. The understanding, however, had to be created step by step. As Fiedler tells the story, “Initially I had to go to the planning commission to help them understand how artists could animate communities. I went to the meeting and I asked them to draw something they felt really positively about. ‘When you’re done,’ I told them, ‘you have to share it with the group and tell us about it.’ That simple exercise helped to change their minds. ‘We’ve never had this much fun at a meeting,’ they said.”