Opportunity at the Intersection of Community Development and Creative Placemaking


Ben Hecht, Living Cities

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Volume 10, Issue 2 | December 13, 2014

The community development field has delivered unprecedented social change work
since the 1960s: billions of dollars in private capital invested; hundreds of thousands
of affordable housing units built; the development of many high-performing
local, regional, and national nonprofit organizations; and the creation of the Low
Income Housing Tax Credit, the most successful private-public partnership the nation has
ever seen.1

The emerging creative placemaking field has a different but complementary set of assets.
Creative placemaking leads with the ability to address the intangibles that make a successful
and vibrant community (see Gary Hattem’s article in this issue), to mobilize social capital
(Darren Walker and Xavier de Souza-Briggs in this issue), to bring performance and participatory
activities to public spaces (Jamie Bennett, this issue), and—maybe most important—
the capacity to “challenge preconceptions about what a city is supposed to look like and
how it works” (Rip Rapson, this issue).

The intersection of community development and creative placemaking holds great
promise. If we combine the energy and spirit of creative placemaking with the demonstrated
capacity and practices of community development, we can create an exciting, inspiring,
and inclusive vision for our communities in the future. To reach this goal, we should better
understand the potential and common challenges of each field. The essays in this collection
enable us to do just that.

What Creative Placemaking Brings to Community Development

Focusing on Human Capital

There is growing consensus in the community development field that we need to expand
from our initial focus on the built environment to include strategies that simultaneously
address people and opportunity. As Xavier de Souza Briggs, vice president for economic
opportunity and assets at the Ford Foundation, explains in this issue, we are going from a
“near obsession with the hardware of place—the physical systems—to a much deeper appreciation
for the role of human capital, knowledge, and creativity.”

Jamie Bennett, executive director of ArtPlace America, underscores this point. “In creative
placemaking, ‘creative’ is an adverb describing the making, not an adjective describing the place. Successful creative placemaking is not quantified by how many new arts centers,
galleries, or cultural districts are built. Rather, its success is measured in the ways artists,
formal and informal arts spaces, and creative interventions contribute toward community
outcomes.” Expanding this idea, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, notes
that creative placemaking, particularly in under-resourced communities, can unearth and
support inherent creativity within a community: “I reject the idea that a community that
is poor can’t be a place of creative placemaking….The creative process might need to be
organized, leveraged, and oxygenated, but you often find that creativity is there.” Examining
communities through a lens of assets instead of deficits transforms perspectives. In addition,
de Souza Briggs notes that artists, better than developers, can “connect, engage, and
listen” toward enabling the community to “narrate itself:” how it sees itself, what the critical
issues it faces are, and where it is headed. As many in the community development field and
the broader social sector learn how to meaningfully engage communities and incorporate
their voices and visions in development strategies, enlisting artists as partners has proven
particularly effective in many geographies and contexts.

Further, creative placemaking opens the door to marry physical environment improvements
to arts programming, events, and education. It fosters public spaces that encourage
social cohesion and engagement, and nurtures local talent and distributed, diverse leadership.

Unearthing Engines of Economic Development

The essays in this collection are rich with examples of how art and culture serve as engines
of economic development (Mary Jo Waits, Stephen Sheppard, among others). Samuel Hoi,
president of Maryland Institute College of Arts, writes about a recent Otis report documenting
the potent economic drivers and jobs generators that the creative professionals and
industries are in Los Angeles and California. In the same vein, Bennett writes, “Creative
placemaking supports economic diversity and place-based prosperity in the community,
creating more opportunity for all…By clustering together different types of arts spaces along
underused streets, communities are able to create consistent patterns of foot traffic, which
provides a positive presence on the street to improve public safety and to drive a neighborhood’s
economy, as these members of the public dine and shop.”

Rip Rapson, president of the Kresge Foundation and chair of the ArtPlace presidents’
council, tells a compelling story of how creative placemaking in Detroit has leveraged both
the economic potential and the creativity of artists to reimagine the city: “Artists in Detroit
…are instrumental in helping us see connections among the past, the present, and the future.
They embody, embrace, and express the soul of the place. And they are fully engaged in
creative placemaking—contributing tangibly and powerfully to energizing and animating
neighborhoods.” Artists, both long-term residents and those recently attracted to the city by
the prospect of a community of like-minded individuals and affordability, do not, according
to Rapson, see the city as “on the skids” and are instead converting public ruin and decline into a new cultural identity that has significant potential for attracting attention, visitors,
new residents, and further investment.

In addition, Jane Chu, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and
Jason Schupbach, director of design programs at NEA, outline how the endowment’s Our
Town grants have, among other important goals, supported communities in defining
arts as economic assets. They emphasize that “Artists and designers provide amenities for
consumers and rejuvenate downtowns and neighborhoods….[They] help form the core of
community development practice.”

Releasing Imagination, Boldness, and Animation

As de Souza Briggs points out, community development has a “problem-solving frame:
delineating problems and fixing them.” This frame is important and necessary. However,
creative placemaking allows for more comprehensive solutions that supplement those fixes
with bold, inventive reinforcements that contribute to resilience. Artists can breathe life into
buildings, make places more attractive, and provide elements of unique character and the

As Bennett describes, “Creative placemaking provides a sense of community identity
and agency, which connects community members with one another as stewards of shared
space.” This type of shared stewardship holds great promise for extending the impact of
community development intiatives.

What Community Development Brings to Creative Placemaking

The community development field is mature, and with that maturity, it has developed,
refined, and applied tools and mechanisms that have helped transform underinvested
places in the course of decades. These mechanisms can add great value to and strengthen
the creative placemaking movement and bring the two fields into even closer, more productive
collaboration in a few key ways.

Harnessing Private Capital

One of community development’s greatest accomplishments has been its success in leveraging
public and philanthropic dollars with private capital. The Community Development
Financial Institution (CDFI) movement has invested and catalyzed more than $30 billion
in financing to urban, rural, and Native communities, with losses of less than 1.7 percent.2
As many of the essays in this issue note (Ann Markusen/Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, Gary
Hattem), financing is one of creative placemaking’s greatest challenges. As Hattem notes,
“Intentionally directing a flow of commercial capital for creative placemaking will require a
sustained commitment to fostering a network of resources that allow for a capital-ready environment”
Community development has done that consistently throughout the United States.

Managing Permanent, Dedicated Funds

Community development has built the capacity to create, manage, and deploy a pool of
funds dedicated to community development activities—from the $230 million New York City
Acquisition Fund to the $50 million Bay Area Transit-Oriented Affordable Housing (TOAH)
Fund. Community development also has effectively supported public measures such as Seattle’s
special fund for construction and rehabilitating housing for low- and moderate-income
families, the Seattle Housing Levy. Initially enacted in 1981, 66 percent of Seattle voters
supported the most recent renewal of the fund in 2009. These public and private funds
provide not only a ready source of capital, but the capacity to move from the periodic to the
predictable—a long-term asset that enables a robust level of transactions that have the potential
to be transformational. If the Public Art Trust Fund, Nonprofit Displacement Working
Group and Mitigation Fund, and Community Arts Stabilization Trust—described by San
Francisco mayor Ed Lee and director of cultural affairs Tom DeCaigny in their essay in this
issue—are indicators of what the future holds, community development could dramatically
accelerate the creation of similar mechanisms throughout the United States dedicated to
creative placemaking.

Building Public-Private Partnerships

The power and effect that the community development field has had are directly related
to building public-private partnerships. Whether it is the blending of public, private, and
nonprofit funding streams in individual transactions or large-scale funds, such as in New
York and the Bay Area, or in the implementation of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit,
this concept has long been at the core of community development efforts.

Several essays in this issue clarify that this type of collaboration, beyond financing, is
essential to advancing effective creative placemaking at scale. Mayor Lee and DeCaigny
refer to the Rainin project that builds on the momentum of several public-private partnerships
including the “Let There Be Light” video installation on the side of 1019 Market
Street by the producer of the internationally heralded “Bay Lights,” a monumental public
artwork that adorns the Bay Bridge; the UN Plaza Fall Event Series that fills the San Francisco
Central Market district with daytime and evening cultural and culinary programs; and the
mayor’s Living Innovation Zones. Community development’s experience with building
win-win relationships could be invaluable in expanding these types of activities.

In addition, the community development field could help creative placemakers ride the
current wave of “zones” or districts and make arts-led zones more ubiquitous. Zones are a
city’s effort to bring an array of partners and institutions together in a defined geographic
area to achieve specific outcomes, whether it be creating jobs, clustering arts institutions, or
stimulating innovation. For example, community development’s experiences navigating land
use laws and regulations and understanding how to create incentives for desired types of development—gained by working in an array of zone initiatives such as the empowerment zones of
the 1980s and President Obama’s current Promise Zones—could be invaluable.

Working Together Toward More Rigor in Measuring Results

Uniting community development and creative placemaking has the potential to both
better address the needs of communities and take better advantage of local assets, particularly
the people, in more comprehensive, responsive, authentic, and inclusive ways. Although
each field brings unique strengths to the table, they both lack effective measures of success.
Many essays in this issue refer to efforts to bring rigorous measurement to creative placemaking
and the lack of success in doing so (Elaine Morley/Mary Winker, Sheppard, and
Walker/de Souza-Biggs, for example). De Souza Briggs summarizes these efforts well: “I
don’t think that creative placemaking has necessarily made a big impact on how success
is measured in communities, though it has much to offer and the potential is there.” As the
two fields work in closer collaboration, defining the results that investors and citizens should
expect in these place-based efforts should be easier to articulate, supported by data, and
more measurable. We must organize evaluation efforts based on understanding outcomes
for individuals and communities, rather than outputs.

The Road Ahead

The synergies from and benefits of more collaboration between the community development
and creative placemaking fields are compelling—an almost certain case of one plus
one equals three. Less certain, however, is how collaboration will be accomplished. Should
philanthropy or government, which fund both fields, drive the marriage and, if so, how?
Would something such as a large-scale, national “prize” competition create a tipping point?
Should we simply maintain the current transaction-by-transaction strategy, which has been
receiving traction, but do more to share “what works” more broadly? This anthology makes it
clear that something special is happening in US communities and raises the ante on determining
what more we should do to nurture the movement.

1. David J. Erickson, The Housing Policy Revolution: Networks and Neighborhoods, (Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press,
August 2009).

2. Democracy Collaborative. Overview: Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs), http://community-wealth.org/strategies/panel/cdfis/index.html.

Ben Hecht became president and CEO of Living Cities in July, 2007. Since that time, the organization
has adopted a broad, integrative agenda that harnesses the collective knowledge of its 22 member foundations
and financial institutions to benefit low income people and the cities where they live. Prior to
joining Living Cities, Mr. Hecht co-founded One Economy Corporation, a nonprofit organization that
leverages the power of technology and information to connect low-income people to the economic mainstream
through broadband in the home and public-purpose media. Immediately before One Economy,
Mr. Hecht was senior vice president at the Enterprise Foundation. There, he led the organization’s efforts
beyond housing – into childcare, workforce development and economic development and oversaw the
expansion of the organization’s revolving loan fund from $30 million to $200 million. Mr. Hecht
received his JD from Georgetown University Law Center and his CPA from the State of Maryland.