CDCs and Creative Placemaking: Who Should Learn from Whom?

Feb 2013: I'm attending a small conference in Miami. With me are over 150 participants—all folks deeply committed to their communities, passionate about engaging their neighbors in improving the quality of life and vitality of their homes and neighborhoods, incredibly creative about finding resources where others see none, and optimistic about the future they are shaping. I imagine this is what it felt like in the early years of the community development movement, in the late '60s and early '70s, when resident-led, activist-oriented community initiatives and community development corporations blossomed across the country.

Most of the attendees are grant recipients of a new community development funding, research and advocacy collaboration that has awarded 80 grants, totaling over $26 million, to 76 organizations in 46 communities across the United States. The collaboration consists of 13 leading national and regional foundations, six of the country's largest banks, six federal agencies, the White House's Office of Management and Budget, and Domestic Policy Council. Oh, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Yeah, everyone is there to talk about creative placemaking. And nearly all of them are artists or arts administrators.

The new collaboration is known as ArtPlace:

“ArtPlace is investing in art and culture at the heart of a portfolio of integrated strategies that can drive vibrancy and diversity so powerful that it transforms communities.”

ArtPlace has good company. The National Endowment for the Arts has a related grantmaking program known as Our Town that states:

“Art works to improve the lives of America's citizens in many ways. Communities across our nation are leveraging the arts and engaging design to make their communities more livable with enhanced quality of life, increased creative activity, a distinct sense of place, and vibrant local economies that together capitalize on their existing assets.”

The major private foundations invested in ArtPlace also run their own programs that invest in arts and community development.  For example, the Surdna Foundation recently revamped its strategy around grantmaking, specifically seeking out the intersection of its “thriving cultures” program with its “healthy environments” and “strong local economies” program areas:

“The Foundation works to build strong ties across all three programs as we recognize how they depend on each other to create just and sustainable communities.”

In addition to the Surdna Foundation, other participating foundations include: Bloomberg Philanthropies, The Ford Foundation, The James Irvine Foundation, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The McKnight Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The William Penn Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, and The Rasmuson Foundation.

Combined, these are a strong signal that arts as community development is no longer a quirky, hybrid practice or niche strategy for community development, but instead, it is emerging as an effective field of practice.

There were some compelling research findings about the fundamental aspect of arts in communities that we learned at the conference. Rocco Landesman, former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, cited a study that found that children from low socio-economic status who had arts exposure academically outperformed children from low socio-economic status who did not have arts exposure. But more importantly, children from low socio-economic status who had arts exposure also outperformed children in the general population who did not have arts exposure!

So, while research by ArtPlace, the Urban Institute, and others continues to explore its effectiveness, is “creative placemaking” or “creative place-building” a practice that all community development corporations should be considering adding to their portfolio of practice?

Yes, because community development corporations have been placemaking and place-building for over half a century now. Yet, there are as many communities and neighborhoods in need today as there were when the community development field emerged in mid-1960s. There are socio-economic challenges facing communities today as great as there were back then. Community development needs and deserves a redesign—of practices, systems, structures and solutions.

Yes, because an arts and community development approach to placemaking, as these “creative placemakers” in Miami so awesomely demonstrated, tells the story in the doing of the work. This is key. Community development corporations struggle to make the case for their work, and are frustrated that those outside the work do not seem to recognize its value. When you can do the work and tell the story in the doing, there’s something community development corporations can learn.

Yes, because arts as community development is culturally resonant. Through creative placemaking and the other ways that arts are community development, a natural bridge between the processes of community and neighborhood change and the increasingly multicultural United States can be built.

Yes, because creative placemakers are nothing if not entrepreneurial, and community development the field is struggling to keep up with the promises of community development the movement. What is needed is more, more diverse, and more distributed community development throughout the United States. Creative placemakers are a new source of entrepreneurial community development energy.

At the conference, in hallways and mealtime conversations and formal sessions, the question was raised about what comes next for these creative placemaking organizations after their initial success at becoming key stakeholders and contributors to the revitalization and transformation of their neighborhoods. To a few of the community development practitioners who attend, the idea was raised of creating or becoming community development corporations.

Do ArtPlace grantees, and the thousands of organizations, artists, and initiatives like them around the country, need to become community development corporations? Or can they, in their creative wisdom and constructive imaginative spirit, help the entire community development field reconnect with a movement focus, finding a way for community development to happen everywhere?

What do you think?


(Photo of a mural by Taller Puertorriqueno in Philadelphia by Ashley Hahn, CC BY-NC-SA.)

Jeremy Liu is a consultant and principal of Creative Ecology (, and most recently served as executive director of the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation in Oakland (


  1. AMEN to Jeremy!!! CDC’s need to find new ways to innovate to bring investment and opportunity to low-income communities.

    I’m working in Boston on an interesting concept involving a CDC and several local non-profits to create shared infrastructure to support industrial artists. The facility combines work space, fabrication space, classrooms, and a mix of heavy industrial tools and equipment plus computer-aided design, laser cutters, and 3D printers to provide affordable access to tools and equipment to support local working artisans, craftspeople, and hobbyists…. a new twist on co-working.

  2. You ask whether CDCs should add “creative placemaking” to their portfolios. I would answer Yes, but I would add that creative placemakers should learn from those “resident-led, activist-oriented community initiatives and community development corporations” that you reference in your first paragraph.

    One of the elements often missing from creative placemaking is engagement and partnership with community residents, i.e. “community building.” It is great that kids benefit from exposure to art, but I would argue that it is better when their parents and neighbors participate in that exposure.

    Whether or not we all agree with Susie Cagle’s analysis of Oakland’s “urban renaissance” (, I hope that we all recognize that non-inclusive creative placemaking will likely be divisive. It is a lesson that community developers have often learned the hard way and it is one that we should share with creative placemakers.

    Response to Jen Faigel: In case you are not familiar with Philadelphia’s Indy Hall, this article may be interesting:

  3. Great piece- this does capture the energy of CDCs working on Cultural Placemaking. Yesterday, we broke ground on a six story building with two theaters, arts support space, non-profit offices, 88 affordable apartments, and parking for the Seattle Police Department.

    It was wonderful to see the artists, police, politicians and bankers come together to celebrate.


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