We Need the Data—But Can’t Forget the People—in Creative Placemaking

People gathered outdoors around a table.
Working on the “High Fives” project. Photo courtesy of Design Impact.

If you’ve lived in your neighborhood for at least a year, you’re pretty familiar with it. You know which intersections have the longest red lights, which store has the best price on toothpaste and which market has the better fruit. You may know some of the small business owners, and may attend a local cultural event once in a while.

These are all useful and worthwhile points of familiarity, but they are self-centered, as they reflect the way we as residents and consumers interact with the people, spaces, and places in our community. To adopt a different viewpoint is hard, because we are, after all, who we are. Police officers see your community in a vastly different way, as do mail carriers, children, and seniors.

For community development practitioners looking to implement creative placemaking strategies in a neighborhood, the steps, and the potential pitfalls, are numerous. With no other community development strategy is the end result as indicative of the initial groundwork than in arts and culture—the buy-in and trust of the community is evident not only in initial turnout but ongoing participation. You’ve read here what not to do, and know that getting feedback from community members at the earliest stages helps to inform each next step. But however difficult, altering one’s viewpoint of a community is a crucial step, because creative placemaking’s overarching goal is to reach everyone where they are, and you can’t do that if you begin with a well thought-out plan in hand.

With this is mind; if one of your tools is mapping, you’re off to a better start.

I attended a crowdmapping workshop recently presented by Together North Jersey in downtown Newark. In crowdmapping, participants get out on foot and survey a neighborhood for its existing creative and cultural assets. “Every small group gets a small section of [a neighborhood’s] overall map to work from—this is so they can focus their efforts and share ideas with one another,” said Leo Vazquez, executive director of the National Consortium for Creative Placemaking.

Teams are given color-coded stickers, and mark places on the map they’ve identified for their potential. Large, blank walls on the sides of buildings can become canvasses for murals; empty, fenced-in land owned by private business can become a site for temporary large-scale sculpture installations; community gardens can also become venues for outdoor music performances, and small parks can become designated spots for contemplation or solo art-making.

In the process, I made special note of being outside and observing how a community moves and interacts with one another and with space—where people are gathered, which streets have the most pedestrians, which playground is the most popular are all things to remember when at the point of trying to reach people “where they are.”

Crowdmapping’s virtue is its practicality and democracy—it requires no prior training, and everyone’s viewpoint is useful—from the CDC director who previously saw a community in terms of the things that needed fixing, to the resident who feels empowered as a result of the exercise, and may now have a greater urge to participate in future projects.

“Crowd mapping is a great tool for creative placemaking, or even any kind of community development issue [because] it helps gather important data and crowdsource information about a place. When the groups bring their maps together into one large map, you can see a lot of new connections, opportunities, and gaps. People see this, and come up with even more ideas—it’s a social activity that brings people together to learn from one another,” said Vazquez.

Taking a similar mapping process to document a community’s existing cultural capital is a new tool designed by Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance-Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore. Called GEOLOOM, the online, interactive tool allows users to click on a geographic location on a map of Baltimore and find out the arts and cultural assets that exist there—from schools that are linked to arts and culture organizations to artist studios, to non arts-related businesses that feature arts activities.

What is most interesting about GEOLOOM is that its mapped cultural data is layered on top of social and economic indicators like unemployment and high school graduation rates, bringing into focus whether neighborhoods considered “art deserts” may also struggle with socioeconomic disparities. This tool is being constantly updated, and the data tracked helps to influence civic leaders, artists, and funders, and informs decisions about which resources are needed, and where. For municipalities interested in creating a similar tool, the designers of GEOLOOM produced a handbook that details their process from concept through creation, resources, and the background to a community participation survey that was done to learn what kinds of arts and culture activities were most important to Baltimore residents.

This act of peeling back and going deeper is at the heart of another organization’s arts and culture work. Design Impact, a nonprofit social innovation firm, used a method called ‘design thinking’ in the Walnut Hills neighborhood of Cincinnati to engage and energize a segment of that neighborhood’s population.

With longtime Walnut Hills residents experiencing social and economic disconnect from the increased development happening around them, Design Impact was enlisted by a group of organizations to help engage those residents. Through individual and small group discussions in places where people felt most comfortable (like in homes or the local community center), Design Impact received honest feedback about the barriers to participation, and used that feedback to better involve residents in the subsequent brainstorming and planning sessions (some taking place outside under a pop-up tent that people could walk up to, rather than meetings behind closed doors). Those sessions led to the creation of a resident-led creative placemaking project and increased community engagement.

Design Impact applies its founders’ experience in product design and community organizing to an “outside of the box” approach to the co-creation of solutions.

“In some design firms, even those in the social innovation space, there’s a notion that they’ll do deep community research (for example, with extreme poverty or unemployment), go into the studio, and then get feedback from individuals. We believe those individuals who are at the heart of the issue should be present at every step,” said Sarah Corlett, director of community development and strategy at Design Impact.

“In order to do our work, we have to engage a community with real, authentic relationships.”

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