Growth and Vibrancy through Creative Placemaking

How Arts and Culture Lead to Sustainable Prosperity

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Jim Tischler is director of the Michigan State Housing Development Authority's Community Development Division.

Megan Starr was the co-creator of Art Gumbo, a quarterly soup dinner which provided crowd-funded cash grants for creative ideas in Dubuque, Iowa.

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Posted: Wednesday, November 5, 2014 5:30 pm

What is creative placemaking?

Essentially it is a development built around and inclusive of arts, cultural and creative thinking, such as museums and orchestra halls, public art displays, transit stations with art themes and live-work structures for creative people, according to Jim Tischler, with the Michigan State Housing Development Authority’s Community Development Division.

Tischler explained Michigan’s statewide MIPlace partnership in a presentation at the recent Growing Sustainable Communities Conference in Dubuque, Iowa. The partnership is a collaborative effort of multiple state agencies in Michigan and the 40-member public/private Sense of Place Council. MIPlace helps communities re-examine the importance of everyday settings and experiences that shape our lives – the downtowns, parks, plazas, main streets, neighborhoods and markets that influence where people live and how they interact.

MIPlace’s purpose is to “keep Michigan at the forefront of placemaking. It’s a simple concept that people choose to live in places that offer the amenities, resources, social and professional networks and opportunities to support thriving lifestyles.”

Tischler said that vibrant, successful regions promote economic activity. In fact, he said, economic, social, cultural and ecological return on investment can equal prosperity in a community.

He presented a visual definition of what placemaking looks like, showing three images of what he called “Anyplace, USA.” The first was a generic intersection, with a gas station on the corner, no sidewalks, and no green landscaping within sight. The audience could tell by looking at the image that this place was not only not livable, it was not sustainable, he said. A second image was an improvement over the first, with transportation enhancements and landscaping. This is better, he said, but still not sustainable. Finally, the third image showed cars sharing the road with bicycles, pedestrians walking down a pleasant sidewalk, rich vegetation and attractive shop fronts. It would be easy to imagine an appealing residential district intermingled with the conveniences of this street.

“As humans, we know what makes a place livable,” he said. “But how do we systematize it?”

Tischler said it is important to develop a unified delivery of programs to create an efficient system. Dollars should flow to the projects, rather than projects chasing after dollars.

“MIPlace shifts the paradigm to place-based livability but we have a set of internal rules: we’re not going to be a government program,” he said.

Recent years have brought a heightened distrust of government in many parts of the country, Tischler said. In his experience, any government initiative gets the following response, “Thirty percent say we should have done it years ago; 30 percent say no way, and 40 percent are in between.”

He believes those responses occur mainly when there is no public ownership of a project. The key, he said, is to present projects that are marketplace and data driven.

“The market wants place-based livability and sustainability,” Tischler said, and unfortunately, “there ain’t enough butter to cover the toast.”

By that, he meant that there are not enough resources to fund every worthy project. The answer is to think systematically not individually, he said.

He drew a connection between placemaking and economic development. The typical approach to development is that businesses go after the talent. Tischler said that 60 percent of the workforce are knowledge workers, and that most of these are either “millennials” or are downsizing baby boomers forging second or third careers. Many in this group relocate to new metropolitan areas and of this group, about 35 percent move without a job.

“They entrepreneur to put employment prospects together,” he said. “That’s why placemaking will be a big part of what brings them in. Communities should try to capture these young workers and boomer entrepreneurs.”

To make system change a reality, Tischler said, communities, have to look at the operators in the system. In Michigan, six internal agencies formed around the idea of placemaking. This connected to the development of the Sense of Place Council, which includes state trade organizations, realtors, smart growth developers, bank associations, credit union leagues, environmental councils, municipal leagues, historic preservation networks, planning associations and architecture associations.

Initiatives of the MIPlace Partnership include self-assessment and technical assistance tools for local officials and stakeholders; a six-module placemaking curriculum and guidebook; and strategic work with state agencies to help them institutionalize placemaking as an economic and community development strategy.

Concerning, the placemaking curriculum, Tischler said that in a little more than two years they have trained nearly 12,000 elected or appointed officials and citizens, adding “we are developing an army of lieutenants and soldiers so knowledge and practice will pervade from bottom up as we change state programs.”

Tischler noted that Dubuque is a good example of creative placemaking fitting into economic development and sustainability.

“Creative placemaking can fit within a larger context, and is the next frontier,” he said.

Megan Starr of Dubuque co-founded and organized a project that fit into the sort of creative placemaking Tischler discussed. Called Art Gumbo, the project was a concept adapted from other communities around the country where arts and funding for the arts were priorities for residents. Starr said she heard a story on National Public Radio describing one version of the project. Local potters made soup bowls into which local chefs served soups they’d prepared from locally sourced ingredients. Diners were two groups of people: artists who had a project but no funding, and art patrons who were looking for a project to help fund.

The model had done well in other communities, and Starr developed a version that would work in Dubuque. Her group began in 2010 by sending out a flier and contacting potters, caterers and farmers.

“We found that this was an easy ask and that making soup was an easy endeavor, especially since they had such great local ingredients to work with,” she said.

The application proposal for artists to follow was rather simple, Starr said, and they had about a month to prepare it before their pitch event. They had to describe the artistic project the Art Gumbo grant would help them create, discuss the impact the proposed project would have on the Dubuque community, detail how they would show progress on the project, and how they would spend the money. At first, many artists did not see how what they did in the studio translated into having an impact on the community, Starr said.

“They had to think about why does a photo or sculpture matter and what is the role of the artist in bringing a community together in a meaningful way.”

The Voices Warehouse, a Dubuque arts center, was the site of the first Arts Gumbo event, featuring 10 artists with proposals to pitch and 55 arts patrons. Patrons read over the proposals and asked questions of the artists and their projects. Contributions that night totaled $660. That money funded the installation of a public art sculpture by Dubuque artist Gene Tulley on a rooftop in the city's renovated Millwork district.

Other competitions followed and winners were expected to find volunteers to help at the next dinner, Starr said.

“Even those whose projects were not supported gained valuable practice explaining why their artwork mattered,” she said.

Art Gumbo organizers were able to pay potters for the bowls, and pay local growers and caterers for the meals. Altogether, 24 projects were funded with $11,685 raised over four years before Art Gumbo closed its doors, when the time seemed right to move on to other things, Starr said.

At its peak, it raised contributions of $1,500 in one night, and many of the projects it funded still live on.

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