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creative placemaking reframes how residents and visitors experience neighborhoods









Over the past year, the neighborhood of North Collinwood has hosted pop-up art exhibits, opened a new art gallery, created a practice studio for bands, funded a large portion of the popular Lottery League, and filmed a documentary about its efforts to improve the community through arts programming.
 
All of that was made possible thanks to a $500,000 grant from ArtPlace America, a collaboration of national and regional funders that recently awarded $15.2 million in grants to creative placemaking projects across the U.S.
 
"The ArtPlace funding takes creative placemaking ideas that are being considered and gives them the cash injection they need to go from concept to reality and, hopefully, exit velocity," explains Brian Friedman, Executive Director of Northeast Shores Development Corporation, a nonprofit that serves North Collinwood.
 
The competition for the grant was fierce. North Collinwood's application was selected along with just 46 other grantees from over 2,000 applicants across the country. Friedman says the selection committee was impressed with the "Collinwood Rising" strategy of looking at vacant property not as a liability but as an asset.
 
"How do we engage the community around considering vacancy as an opportunity rather than a threat," he adds. "We intended to use interventions that leveraged the arts to do that."
 
Friedman says the efforts are working.
 
"What we're trying to do is increase people's satisfaction with the direction of the neighborhood," he says. "Based on our annual survey of residents, all of the indicators are moving in the direction we hoped they would."
 
Collinwood's endeavors are part of a larger movement known as creative placemaking: the use of arts- and culture-based projects to revitalize neighborhoods and boost local economies. At its core, creative placemaking is about transforming vacant and underused properties into hubs of activity and prosperity by engaging artists and residents of the neighborhood. 
 
Centers of Community
 
ArtPlace, along with organizations such as Project for Public Spaces (PPS), the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and Artspace, have been working with cities, planning groups, developers, arts organizations and other stakeholders on placemaking initiatives for several years. Their collective impact is beginning to show. 

According to a report issued by the NEA, artists account for three percent of the nation's workforce, and the cultural industries support close to five million jobs.
 
In 2011, Washington D.C.'s director of planning, Harriet Tregoning, used an Artplace grant to create temporary pop-up artist showcases in empty storefronts and lots. She says creative placemaking is now a permanent part of DC’s city planning process.
 
”Part of what we're learning is that we can temporarily activate those places and help local businesses get a start, help create new centers of community,” she says. “That temporary activity helps ensure that permanently good things will happen."
 
In DC, Tregoning says, the creative economy represents 10 per cent of all jobs. The city suffers from a "Clark Kent Complex," she adds – it’s known for government, but it’s actually rolling in the arts. Creative placemaking is now helping rebrand the city.
 
This shift is perhaps most apparent in Michigan, which was hit first with the decline of auto manufacturing and then further by the Great Recession. Yet cities such as Ann Arbor and Detroit have started to become draws for artists due to the low cost of living and community-based initiatives that allow artists to make a community impact.     
 
Detroit has received more than $2 million in Artplace grants for projects ranging from revitalizing abandoned buildings to the recent REVOLVE Detroit project. Led by the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC), the initiative will "activate vacant storefronts with transformational businesses and art installations."  
 
Susan Mosey, President of the University Cultural Center Association and a member of the Detroit Creative Corridor Center, says there are several reasons why placemaking is attractive to cities like Detroit. First, artists and creative ventures add value by creating economic opportunity. Creative artists and businesses also tend to want to inhabit the interesting, historic properties critical to revitalizing local communities. And finally, placemaking impacts additional sectors and attracts likeminded businesses. One manufacturer, Shinola, prioritizes hiring students from Detroit’s arts college.
 
"It really brings in a lot of complementary activity into a neighborhood," says Mosey.  
 
Making Connections
 
Placemaking is often at its best when it connects people and places, especially in pedestrian or transit corridors, or when it adds new ideas to a familiar place. 
 
In Baltimore, the Transit Initiative was awarded a $200,000 ArtPlace grant to transform transit environments in three of the city’s arts and entertainment districts after Transit Initiative leaders Bill Gilmore and Randi Vega noticed a variety of challenges.  
 
In one area, Highlandtown, there were significant conflicts between older citizens waiting for the bus and kids from nearby schools. In other areas, the transit stops are hubs of dead space that could be used to better connect local businesses to patrons.
 
Baltimore has been looking to how Europe handles transit issues with admiration. By inviting European artists with experience in these transit systems to come to Baltimore and work with local artists, Gilmore and Vega hope to bring new life to transit stops.
 
The project could also put the art scene quite literally on the map. "It’s become an opportunity to connect Baltimore to arts on an international level," Gilmore says.  
 
These connectivity themes are consistent across the country. Pennsylvania has received more than $3 million in ArtPlace America grants since 2011, fostering more vibrant places , boosting local economies and making urban neighborhoods safer.
 
“Any place where you have foot traffic, there's an opportunity for placemaking,” says David Clayton, Program Manager of Breadboard at University City Science Center, which won an ArtPlace grant through the Department of Making and Doing.
 
DMD received $150,000 to activate a section of Market Street that is known as the Avenue of Technology. Four local art, design, and tech organizations that are part of DMD will bring art and activity to the corridor, increasing foot traffic and keeping visitors in the area. Arts-based workshops will help residents develop job skills.
 
In Pittsburgh, the City of Asylum also hopes to increase foot traffic in a soon-to-be redeveloped part of town, focusing on another corridor known as Sampsonia Way.
 
The organization offers residencies to writers seeking asylum from countries around the world. Now, a $300,000 grant will help expand its residencies and programming with temporary and permanent public artworks. Large-scale events will bring international and local talent together to help drive traffic to the area, says the program's Executive Director, Henry Reese, while also making the city more appealing to immigrants.
 
Origins of Placemaking
 
The term "creative placemaking" was coined north of the border in Toronto, Ontario, where the nonprofit Artscape has been turning old buildings into affordable artist housing and studios for more than a quarter century. In 2012, Artscape's tenants conducted over 2,000 performances, exhibitions, and events across the city.  
 
“There's an incredible impact on community vitality and activity, which of course attracts more activity to the neighborhood as a whole," says Pru Robey, Artscape's creative placemaking lab director, who has worked with American organizations to instigate placemaking best practices, and wrote Canada’s only placemaking course.
 
“You then see that multiplier effect start to happen… our projects having a role in the wider regeneration and revitalization of neighborhoods. The economic impacts play out at multiple levels -- from the individual artist, to the local community vitality and economic activity, to that wider impact on the transformation of our city.”
 
This is exactly what ArtPlace America looks for when awarding grants, emphasizing projects that strive for diversity and vibrancy. This year, ArtPlace received more than 1,200 grant applications. It was competitive, but always boils down to the same thing.
 
"It is really about how arts and culture can play a role in changing and advancing places," says Bridget Marquis, ArtPlace America's program director. 
 
Upcycled Community
 
Collinwood isn't the only local community to score an ArtPlace grant. This spring, the St. Clair Superior neighborhood was awarded a $375,000 grant that will help create artist studios and galleries, establish fellowships for upcycling artists, rehab artist live/work houses, create affordable incubator space for retail pioneers, and establish a marketplace for upcycled products.
 
"This is a methodology for neighborhood revitalization," says Nicole McGee of Plenty Underfoot, an arts-based business that repurposes discarded materials into artwork, jewelry and home decor. "The goal is to create more of an economy around upcycling. We will open a creative reuse center, offer classes for residents, and have retail opportunities for small businesses."

McGee already has identified a space for the creative reuse center just west of Empress Taytu restaurant. She envisions a "creative thrift shop," where crafters can shop bins full of discarded wine corks, vinyl flooring samples and other trash-to-treasure. "We're taking materials that others haven’t assigned value to, looking at them and deciding what could be done differently," says McGee. "Then we're transforming them into something bigger and better. We want to do that whole process on a neighborhood level."

The intention of the upcycle initiative is not merely to attract new businesses, but rather to lift up the residents of this low-income community.

"We'll be revitalizing the downtown strip of this neighborhood in ways that create new learning and skills in residents," says McGee. "We’ll be inviting them in."
 
 
Sheena Lyonnais is a Toronto-based journalist and the Managing Editor of sister publication Yonge Street Media. You can follow her on Twitter @SheenaLyonnais.

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