Using Creative Placemaking to Enhance Quality of Life

Levitt Foundation Helps Cities and Towns Host Free Concerts

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Sharon Yazowski is executive director of the Mortimer and Mimi Levitt Foundation.

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Posted: Wednesday, November 22, 2017 10:48 am | Updated: 12:31 pm, Wed Nov 22, 2017.

Vibrant public gathering spaces make communities more livable.

“At their best, public spaces are where communities come together,” said Sharon Yazowski, executive director of the Mortimer and Mimi Levitt Foundation. “They are platforms for civic engagement and for social dialogue. They are vehicles for connection where neighbors meet, where strangers can interact easily with each other, where people can share a sense of belonging, and where communities can heal.”

The Levitt Foundation offers support for communities that want to build relationships by offering free outdoor concerts. Since 2003, the foundation has supported nine permanent concert venues and offered grants to revitalize existing venues in a number of smaller cities and towns. In 2017, the Levitt Foundation supported free concerts in 22 towns and cities across the country.

“Our mission is to strengthen the social fabric of communities,” Yazowski said, “and our goals are to add vitality to once neglected or underused public spaces; to bring people of diverse backgrounds, all age groups, all socioeconomic circumstances together; and to ensure access to high-caliber arts experience, and not just as a one-off but consistently.”

Along the way, they’ve learned lessons that other organizations can learn from to get the most out of their efforts to bring their communities together with any kind of public event. In a presentation at the recent Growing Sustainable Communities Conference in Dubuque, Iowa, Yazowski shared the following tips:

• Choose your programming carefully, because it’s telling your public something about who matters. “Programming can communicate subtle messages regarding who is welcome,” Yazowski said. “The genres of music selected and the cultures represented in the programming may signal that a program is geared only towards certain groups of people.” The best way to avoid this issue is to make sure, from the very start, that you identify the groups of people who make up your community and involve them in your planning process.

• Similarly, bring the community into a conversation about tensions and divisions; otherwise, your events may simply reinforce them.

• The physical space will affect the experience. “Does your design inform how people sit next to each other, stand next to each other, who they dance with?” Yazowski said. Planners should develop their physical space with an eye towards the kind of experience they’re creating.

• Make sure the public knows that community-building is your goal. “We have found that when people truly understand the intention of a place — not just what’s happening there but why it’s happening — they will naturally become ambassadors for the intention of that place,” Yazowski said.

The term "creative placemaking" was introduced by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2003. Creative placemaking efforts have ranged from holding outdoor classes in a monument park in Indianapolis to inviting volunteers to paint an installation of hundreds of giant spheres in Los Angeles.

Ultimately the goal is not simply to offer an arts event, but to use arts events to create experiences that in turn redefine a venue — which might have been dormant and underutilized or even viewed as a nuisance or a location for crime — as a place where community-building occurs.

“Take a cue from the experience economy,” Yazowski said. “Creating vibrant public places by activating them with memorable, engaging shared experiences will draw people in and then will turn communities into places where people want to live, work, and play.”

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