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Interview with Lynne McCormack, LISC director of creative placemaking for national programs
In June, some 60 community developers, artists, public officials, funders and LISC staffers came together in Providence, R.I., to hash out the theory and practice of “creative placemaking,” which is becoming an increasingly integral part of community development work. McCormack, who led the meeting, answered fundamental questions about creative, or community placemaking.
For starters: what the heck is it?
The term placemaking has been used in the community development field since the 1960s. It’s an overarching strategy for improving local places. You can’t change a place just by developing housing, you can’t just improve public safety or make streets attractive. We’ve learned that improving quality of life in disinvested places takes a multipronged, overall approach.
The word “creative” adds arts and culture into that mix: How do we strengthen the transformation of a place by being creative, by bringing artists and arts organizations into the fold? Culture is one of those things that in the U.S. is an add-on, but in every other place in the world is actually just part of what you do. And for LISC, it’s not about bringing culture into a neighborhood, but rather cultivating the arts and culture that are already there. It’s about creating space for residents to strengthen their own neighborhoods by teaming up with artists to design solutions for issues in the community.
The first big push on the term creative placemaking was in 2011, when the National Endowment for the Arts issued a white paper on the subject. It was a fairly rigorous study of communities using arts and culture to change places, mainly through a community development lens.
How is creative placemaking different from simply investing in the arts in a struggling place?
LM: The idea is to use arts and culture to build social connection—and we believe that enhances the other elements of community development.
Let’s say you take a historically disinvested place, and organize an event there that brings residents out of their homes, brings people to that place and lets everyone see it in a different way. People start to take ownership of the place. That’s a very simple placemaking 101 strategy. It’s better when the community is involved in connecting their culture to that event. It’s better still when the community catalyzes the event, and participates in planning and implementing it.
So there’s more to it—there’s something behind the scenes that’s actually bringing people in the neighborhood together to start to re-envision or lift up the history of the place, the beauty of the place, the culture of the place.
So it sees neighborhood people not just as consumers of art but also as makers?
LM: Definitely. Creation is inherent in being human. People cook, make music, sing in a church choir, sew, knit, create traditional crafts. And the list goes on. Everyone has a story to tell. When residents can be part of making the art, whether it be planning a festival, participating in a story-telling project, or designing a bus shelter, a sense of ownership develops. That’s creative placemaking at its best. It’s not an artist coming in and dictating what is important, but residents tapping into what is relevant to their neighborhood.
Daylighting the rich story and culture of the neighborhood for and by the people who live there can lead to a sense of pride that is very important. And that in turn translates to non-residents who may have mislabeled and misunderstood the place. Together, these things can build social and economic capital that benefit the lives of current residents.