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What Is Creative Placemaking?

May 18, 2023

Public art on a reclaimed building: a creative placemaking project.

Creative placemaking is the practice of enhancing a neighborhood’s quality of life through arts, culture, and intentional community development. This practice can take many forms, like visual art installations, performance events, developing permanent brick-and-mortar spaces, and more. These creative approaches to addressing community challenges often include repurposing vacant properties. 

What are the essential elements of creative placemaking? 

  • Creative placemaking is place-based. It serves a specific place and the people who live there. These projects reflect the spatial, social, and economic priorities of the neighborhood. 
  • Creative placemaking is connected to other local strategies. It works in tandem with other strategies for neighborhood revitalization, such as housing preservation or development, economic development, and resident-serving programs.  
  • Creative placemaking is community-driven. Creative placemaking engages residents, business owners, and local leaders to inform what the place can or should be. These people are the decision-makers for the future of their neighborhood and should drive the project’s intention. 

How does creative placemaking use vacant and abandoned properties? 

A growing number of creative placemaking efforts are happening on vacant, abandoned, and underutilized properties.  

Vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated (VAD) properties—sometimes called “blighted” properties—harm public health, lower surrounding property values, drain municipal resources, and overall hurt a community’s sense of stability and pride in their neighborhood. Creative placemaking can turn these vacant spaces into vibrant places and advance community-centered revitalization. 

Creative placemaking on VAD properties looks different across each project and community. These projects can big, like Gary, Indiana’s Union Station Revival, which converted the 4,000 square foot space into a cultural hub and economic driver for the city. Or they can be small-scale, like Pegasus Garden, where a formerly vacant lot is now home to a communal garden on the East Side of Lansing, Michigan. 

Some projects are permanent fixtures, such as The King’s Canvas in Montgomery, Alabama. A formerly vacant commercial storefront, The King’s Canvas now provides vital access to art supplies and entrepreneur trainings, opportunities for artists to show and sell their art, and serves as a community hub for the broader west side neighborhood.  

Other projects can be temporary. Community leaders in Fitchburg, Massachusetts constructed light sculptures that illuminated Riverfront Park for the Leap Year Lights Festival. On February 29, 2020, during the coldest night of the year, approximately 300 community members came to observe the sculptures and participate in activities that brought neighborhood residents together.  

The process of engaging community through arts and culture can provide healing, hope, and inspiration. A Funeral for a Home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is one such example. A collaborative between Temple Contemporary and the City’s Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative, the project aims to tell stories of Philadelphia’s vanishing homes through the recognition and celebration of a single row home, neighborhood, community of stories, and art. 

Common goals for creative placemaking on problem properties include activating underutilized spaces, building a sense of community between residents, and engaging artists. But importantly, each effort is united in that it is shaped by the neighbors and neighborhoods where it happens. 

How does creative placemaking help communities? 

Creative placemaking affects positive change for people and places. It amplifies existing community culture and transforms how residents—and the greater community—feel about historically disinvested neighborhoods.  

In the case of vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties, creative placemaking helps by giving these properties new purpose in positively contributing, rather than harming, a neighborhood. By transforming a vacant or underutilized property into a space created by, with, and for the community, it stimulates neighborhood pride, helps build wealth, and creates better health outcomes and economic opportunities for neighbors.  

Creative placemaking is about more than just creating artistic attractions. It connects to community identity through arts and culture, leveraging creative expression to uplift neighborhoods and the people who live there. Creative placemaking can help communities understand their past, examine their history, and together look ahead toward a more vibrant future. 

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