Taking Note: The Theory Behind Our Town

By Patricia Moore Shaffer, Jen Hughes & Katherine Bray-Simons
Graphs and coffee

In 2011, the National Endowment for the Arts launched Our Town, a grant program that invests in projects that bring together diverse community partners to integrate the arts and culture into community revitalization work—a practice known as creative placemaking. Since then, more than 500 projects have been funded via Our Town in rural, tribal, suburban, and urban communities. Over the last decade, creative placemaking has evolved in notable ways. The moment felt ripe for the agency to delve into past Our Town projects to better document and assess outcomes from the overall program. Our teams revisited past projects and promising new approaches in an effort to establish a theory of change and a logic model that can guide future grant-making through Our Town.

A logic model and theory of change are tools that managers and evaluators often use to describe how a program is supposed to work. A theory of change provides a framework that visually depicts the elements needed to support a program’s success. The best theory of change is one that permits the reader to understand the underlying hypotheses of a grant program’s rationale. A logic model, meanwhile, gives more clarity about the components (i.e., inputs) that need to be in place for the program to work; it also includes visual depictions of how the planned activities will result in specific outputs or products, and outcomes. Logic models thus offer a closer look at the details of how a grant program is meant to work, and how grantees’ local activities are leading to expected results. The Our Town theory of change and logic model, now available here as an online resource, grew from an iterative process over the course of more than a year. This process involved analyzing existing data from Our Town grantees, including grant applications, grantee final reports, and existing case studies available on the agency’s Exploring Our Town website; interviewing national experts on topics related to the implementation and evaluation of creative placemaking programs; and scanning place-based programs and tools. A technical working group gave constructive criticism on early drafts of the theory of change and logic model. The Our Town theory of change, focused on “systems change,” is a high-level conceptual framework that situates the Our Town program as part of a national effort to increase the use of arts, design, and cultural strategies in community development. The theory of change proposes that Our Town grants enable communities to use arts, culture, and design strategies to address local challenges. However, the grants do so by working in tandem with the following elements (“local inputs”): support from local leadership, cross-sector partnerships, financial resources, and community buy-in. These activities lead to “local change,” described in the theory of change as “increased integration of arts, design, and cultural strategies among local, cross-sector partners, leading to economic, physical, and social change.” Ultimately, the cumulative effect of these local projects, supported by Our Town grant awards, contributes to “national change” by increasing the support and recognition of arts, design, and cultural strategies as integral to community development. The Our Town theory of change, and the complementary logic model (which focuses on how Our Town is implemented at the individual grant level), were put to use in 2019, when the program’s grant application guidelines and grantee reporting requirements were rewritten. Prominent in the revised guidelines is a bold, new goal for Our Town: Sustained support and recognition of arts, design, and cultural strategies as integral to every phase of community development across the United States. Consequently, the reporting requirements for new Our Town grantees contain more targeted questions about project impact and sustainability. As we state in the online resource, the Our Town theory of change and logic model should not be seen as the final statement of how Our Town works, but rather should serve this moment in time. Creative placemaking projects are often iterative and not easily bound to diagrams or linear relationships, such as those suggested by a logic model. Similarly, standard measurement techniques often fail to capture the full breadth of individual and community-level outcomes from arts and cultural activities. And yet, our hope is that this theoretical framework shows the core components and dynamics of creative placemaking as a positive force in communities. It enables all of us to better understand how creative placemaking can drive not only economic impact, but also—and perhaps more importantly—social, physical, and, ultimately, greater systemic changes.