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Creative placemaking changes the narrative of cities

Blue Ox Before Transformation
Blue Ox Before Transformation - Provided by Blue Ox
Take a walk down Queen West and you can see the impact of the arts on neighbourhood revitalization. For more than a quarter of a century, non-profit Artscape has been turning old and abandoned buildings into affordable housing and studio space for artists in the area. Combine this with an increase in the number of galleries--a direct result of more artists moving into the community--and one can start to get a sense of what art can do for a city.
 
Artscape's buildings are part of a larger movement known as creative placemaking: the use of arts- and culture-based projects to revitalize neighbourhoods 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 neighbourhood. Artscape's tenants conducted more than 2,000 performances, exhibitions, and events across the city in 2012 alone.  
 
"There's an incredible impact on community vitality and activity, which of course attracts more activity to the neighbourhood as a whole," says Pru Robey, Artscape's creative placemaking lab director who also 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 neighbourhoods. 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."
 
Though the transformation can be seen in Toronto in areas like Queen West, there is no nationwide group of organizations supporting creative placemaking like there is ArtPlace America in the States. ArtPlace is a collaboration of national and regional funders that awarded $15.2 million in grants to creative placemaking projects across the U.S. this past May. These funders consist of federal agencies, banks, and numerous region-specific foundations including New York's Bloomberg Philanthropies. ArtPlace is under leadership from the White House Office of Management and Budget as well as the Domestic Policy Council. They have been issuing grants since 2011.

"We are missing an opportunity in Canada when it comes to leveraging the power of art, culture, and creativity to act as a catalyst of change, growth, and transformation of place," says Artscape President and CEO Tim Jones. He thinks Canada could stand to look to America for inspiration. "The ArtPlace program has encouraged leaders in the arts community to expand their efforts into community-building projects while helping the urban development community view the arts as a powerful force in city-building."
 
"It is really about how arts and culture can play a role in changing and advancing places," echoes Bridget Marquis, ArtPlace America's program director.  
 
The boundaries of creative placemaking are limitless. We look at five recipients of ArtPlace America grants and their visions for reimagining and changing cities. Just imagine what Canada could do if we had a nationwide group of funders pumping millions into the arts. 
 
Case Study #1: Washington, D.C. 
 
According to a report issued by National Endowment for the Arts (another American creative placemaking funder), artists account for three percent of America'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 rolling in the arts. Creative placemaking is now helping rebrand the city. 
 
Case Study #2: Detroit, Michigan
 
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 an 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 influences 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 neighbourhood," says Mosey.  
 
Case Study #3: Denver, Colorado
 
A few months ago, Denver-based dance company Wonderbound moved into an old used car dealership near the downtown core, a blighted property that was surrounded by three homeless missions and a notorious park crawling with drug dealers. Wonderbound’s mission is to transform the building into a hub for artists to rehearse and perform, changing the narrative of the neighbourhood in the process. 
 
Wonderbound, along with partner organization Community Coordinating District No. 1, turned the building into what's now known as Junction Box with help from a $250,000 grant. Passersby stop to watch dancers perform through large open garage doors and, according to Wonderbound's Artistic Director Garrett Ammon, foot traffic in the area has already increased. 
 
"I'm seeing more people riding bikes or strolling from the Curtis Park neighborhood through this part of town to some of the restaurants," says Ammon. "It's been an intersection in town that people avoid, but we're really seeing some changes."

Case Study #4: Baltimore, Maryland
 
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.  
Case Study #5: St. Paul, Minnesota
 
St. Paul, Minnesota's Blue Ox artist group has a different idea for creative placemaking. Having grown up as mini-golf lovers in the working-class West 7th neighborhood, they realized there was a huge redevelopment opportunity for a 15-acre plot of land on the former Schmidt Brewery. They thought, what if we turned the historic site into a mini-golf park that would also function as a business and funnel money back into the arts?
 
The idea landed them a $350,000 grant. They'll use the money to hire artists to design installation pieces for each hole, and contractors to complete infrastructure such as electric and sound. The historic site will be required to maintain a high level of landscaping so that it remains attractive and serves as a kind of urban park. 
 
"One of the things that has always driven us is finding ways to bring the arts outside of the traditional venues it's always had," says Gabriel Shapiro, one of four members of the Blue Ox group. "One way is to make large public art like sculptures. If you put it into an interactive context like a mini golf course where the art itself becomes a feature of what you're there to do … it’s no longer just about the game. You're actually interacting with art as you play … It's re-contextualizing how we see art and how we see recreation."
 
What now?
 
There may not be a nationwide funding strategy, but creative placemaking opportunities do exist in Canada. National government funding programs such as the Canada Cultural Spaces Fund, provincial arts councils including the Ontario Arts Council, and regional funders such as Artscape DIY currently support creative placemaking initiatives through grants such as the community/workplace grant. Artscape has also issued a creative placemaking toolbox that is now being used across Canada.
 
These grants help communities and directly support Canadians working in the cultural sector.

"For us as artists, it's changed our world too. It's completely changing our perceptions of what art can achieve," concludes Garrett Ammon of Wonderbound. "We're gaining just as much or more from the experience as anyone else in the community. That sharing of ideas, sharing of inspiration and possibility, that's what drives us."
 
Sheena Lyonnais is the Managing Editor of Yonge Street Media. Another version of this story ran in several of Yonge Street's sister publications. You can follow Sheena on Twitter @SheenaLyonnais
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