Creative placemaking is the intentional and integrated role of art in place-based community planning and development. In 2011, ArtPlace America was created to help grow the creative placemaking field, and in 2020, as always intended, it will culminate. The term creative placemaking has been critiqued by some as: 1) suggesting that the people and cultures rooted in a place had not already made it; 2) initially lacking a clear statement of values regarding who was meant to benefit from the community development of which the arts and culture were a part. The national conversation that has ensued is furthered in this interview.
MICHAEL ROHD: Roberto, you run the Department of Cultural Affairs in Oakland, California, and have put together a cultural plan for that city’s future. Since you have been very involved in the discourse around creative placemaking by bringing the term “creative place-keeping” into the conversation pretty forcefully, I wonder if and how in your plan you have engaged with the notion of creative placemaking or keeping, how that idea moves into the future of Oakland’s arts and culture and civic world?
ROBERTO BEDOYA: It’s pretty central. My community, as a whole, loves the language of “place-keeping” more than “placemaking;” the Mayor likes place-keeping, too. When I did my “clenched-fist” moment of being a … contrarian, it was to have a counter-narrative to the dominant ways creative placemaking was initially put out into the world. I find a little more integration between the two terms now. But the number one challenge is that, if not every major city, [many are] going through intense gentrification and displacement — or among my activist community, “replacement.” Replacing black folks with white folks, to be blunt, [and that] gets played out in civic discourse. The notion of place-keeping has currency here. The trap around place-keeping is sentimentality — “I want the old days” — and it’s not thoughtful. What are we trying to keep, and how, so it stays fresh and new? I think the future of creative placemaking is people not as intensely problematizing it, but trying to figure out the actions associated with placemaking or keeping, to create agency and a notion of civic commitment.
MICHAEL: Is there one action or recommendation in that plan that particularly speaks to where you hope that work will go?
ROBERTO: Sure. In some ways it’s nothing new and in some ways it is. When I was in Tucson [as Executive Director of the Tuscon Pima Arts Council], I did a place initiative, and I’m going to replicate that here. The title of this [cultural development] plan is “Belonging in Oakland.” That model of artists and arts organizations dealing with civic issues is not new for me, but it is for Oakland. If the number one concern I heard from community folks was the feeling of losing neighborhood connections and neighborhood identity, what can I do in my shop to strengthen social networks as a means to slow down the machinery of displacement or capitalism? If you have strong social networks, then it becomes something else. The Neighborhood Voice Initiative will be one way [to strengthen social networks]. We are also going to pilot artists-in-residence in three government departments — Transportation, Planning and Building, and Race and Equity. And artists will be part of the creative problem-solving team. That goes back to the civic commons. We like that term here. We’ll see where it leads.
I thought I would get the biggest pushback on the plan from my arts community. Because it’s not so much about artists, arts organizations, and grant-making, which are not on the sidelines but not in the center of what we are trying to do. We are looking at culture, at expressive life. It’s creative placemaking in a broad civic context of culture, and also includes arts and arts organizations. Which implies more, all that language of intersectionality plus disciplinary, dot, dot, dot …
MICHAEL: Thank you. Maria, as Roberto is working in one particular city system, you have played really different roles in the journey of creative placemaking, both with Kresge Foundation and now with Arizona State University. Your focus, which really impacted Kresge, involves making sure work is addressing inequity and dealing with interventions and systems, not just one-off, project-based approaches. As people ask about the future of creative placemaking, how would you like to see artists, designers, and cultural workers think about their relationship to place, and an ethics at the heart of this work?
MARIA ROSARIO JACKSON: The debate about creative placemaking versus place-keeping has been really useful to lift up things that needed to be talked about. The idea of placemaking though, particularly for communities that have been historically disenfranchised, is still valid. That particularly low-income communities should only be hunkered down in keeping something and not liberated to make seems problematic. The debate about the terms brings into relief how placemaking with an equity focus actually opens the door for people who are economically vulnerable and have been historically impacted, and helps create agency. If the practice calls for active engagement with power in the making of your place, that’s good.
Placemaking as a term, because it hasn’t been without controversy, has also caused artists and designers to have to think about how they show up in the world and what their roles could be. That extends to institutions that help train and educate artists and designers if they go the route of formal education. [Creative placemaking] has had an important impact that one might think of as systemic just by virtue of introducing the term — whether it’s loved or reviled. Some of the ways in which creative placemaking summons artists to show up, particularly when there is an equity focus involved, are not altogether new — to deal directly with social issues, with residents in communities. It’s lifted up that way of being an artist and given it more legitimacy.
MICHAEL: Jamie, having your leadership at ArtPlace and being out there all over the country and the world — in terms of the future of creative placemaking (whether or not this term is, as Maria just put it so well, both beloved and reviled) — what is your hope for the legacy? Or [what do you see as] at least the next decade of work that is impulsed or initiated by what’s happening right now?
JAMIE BENNETT: It took me a while at ArtPlace to get my head around the idea that we are not dedicated to the phrase “creative placemaking” but rather to the practice of artists and non-artists coming together to help continually build communities that are equitable, healthy, and sustainable. It’s been powerful in conversations with Roberto to unpack why I use the language I use. Talking about the history of placemaking goes back to Jane Jacobs who, with Holly White and others, had this notion of community planning and development that was human-centric. It always began with the residents, was comprehensive and holistic; we don’t live our lives or create systems in silos. It was locally informed. It doesn’t look the same in Phoenix as in Los Angeles. The “creative” [part of the term] is an invitation for artists to join their neighbors in community planning and development. That’s the practice that we are committed to. The reason to create an organization and a framework is to help make that work legible to funders and policymakers. This work has been going on as long as humans have been gathering together, but it often hasn’t been recognized by the people who hold power and resources.
I was recently at a conference that the Stavros Niarchos Foundation put on, with people from different academic and professional backgrounds. An anthropologist reminded me that art and culture may well have been created when human beings harnessed fire. It used to be that the sun came up, human beings woke up, were productive, hunted, gathered, reproduced. The sun went down and you went to bed to get ready for the next day. But when we harnessed fire and were able to extend the day, story and song were invented. That process was in some way marked as being separate from things that are productive and may have been the moment that arts and culture was made a little bit separate from work. I think, I hope, that our legacy is making folks understand that arts and culture is not always separate from work. That it is itself work, and it sometimes can be productive. My hope for the legacy is that the people who hold power in our communities, like elected officials and city managers, recognize the very real work that artists can do bringing their knowledge, skills, and ability to bear on things that are useful for the overall community.
MICHAEL: How does someone new to this broad cross-sector world of creative placemaking/keeping align themselves with voices and actions moving towards equity and sustainability, and not accidentally find their own work deployed in the service of an accumulation of capital or status quo system?
JAMIE: Party People, by [the theater company] UNIVERSES, is about a generational conversation between Black Panther elders, their children, and grandchildren. One of the female Black Panther elders tells the younger generation, “Our belief was always that there are no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent values.” [My] point is, I wouldn’t ask people to go out and look for voices that are dedicated to those things, but to think about their actions and how their actions can actually lead towards that. We often slate people and what they do, and forgive certain things if we like the people who are doing them. How do you figure out if your actions contributed toward healthy, equitable, and sustainable communities? Professor Andrew Taylor at American University reminded me that the first rule of systems thinking is that there is no such thing as side effects, there are only effects. If you are experiencing something as a side effect, it means you haven’t drawn the boundaries of your system widely enough. Many people say, “I’m making an economic development play, and there is an unfortunate side effect that people are displaced or replaced,” to borrow from Roberto. We need to draw the boundaries of our system wide enough that we understand that those are not unrelated or accidental, but part of one system.
MICHAEL: Roberto, you work in the system of a city, but with lots of partners inside and outside it. In terms of what Jamie just offered about side effects versus effects, how do you make decisions in Oakland, for Oakland, around the kind of partnerships that your plan invites folks towards versus partnerships where the effects are not what you want to contribute towards?
ROBERTO: I think about side effects a lot, mainly because I am a person of color in America, and I’m seen as a side effect. I know side effects and how they operate. I think about how the politics of othering, to shift gears a bit, is an operation in civic society. Jeremy Liu [Senior Fellow for Arts, Culture and Equitable Development, PolicyLink] has asked me to help them look at creative placemaking or place-keeping in the context of human rights and property rights: if it is a property rights or a human rights movement, given the changing nature of my city and development that is out of control, and how communities of color historically — given trauma, slavery, and othering — our bodies are still seen as property rights. We have no human rights. Redlining and the history of planning still sees us as property — not that renters have the right to actually live in a rent stabilized apartment. Sixty percent of Oakland’s housing stock is for renters. What does that mean [in terms of] displacement? Going back to Maria about understanding the power dynamics in placemaking or place-keeping and what my drive is, how you create agency and voice and assert human rights is woven into the work I do.
Here’s a sidebar about power, with a little joke. I talk about the entanglement of wills: public, poetic, and political. Inside of that, when I talk to artists, I say, your will in this entanglement is poetic will. How do you imagine the park that didn’t exist? You put it out there, and then you need to mobilize people and get elected officials behind it. That’s the entanglement of wills. Artists often feel like they don’t have any agency when they rub up against policy and urban planning. I constantly need to say, no, your greatest power is your imagination. Now, you also need to know how systems work. And I say, what you are sending out there with your clenched fist is totally legit. Someone like me is in the position where I have to arm wrestle, let’s say with the developer. At the end of the day there’s a handshake. So there’s the fist, arm wrestling, and the handshake. I told this to the Mayor and she goes, “Oh, you forgot something — the sucker punch!”
MICHAEL: To use that to bump over to Maria, as we come to the end [of this conversation]. I feel like all of us, whether it’s at a city, foundation, university, or the intersection of systems that Jamie works in, are often trying to figure out the sequence of strategies that will move things forward. But discovery is also in the work of the artist. Discovery doesn’t always look or feel like a sucker punch, but when we are in the context of power and sometimes subversion, critique, or challenge, the sucker punch feels part of the artist’s role. As you have looked back and forward about creative placemaking, how much is it about collaboration and discovery, and how much about surprise and challenge?
MARIA: I think it’s both and looking forward 15 or 20 years, if this work is successful and has some traction within a community development frame, what are the kinds of roles that we’ll understand as healthy to the change process? Do artists then have the ability, invitation, skill set, training, and validation system that allows for those contributions? What are they? What about imagination gets woven into a community development process and called out, made legible? Are there new roles that we envision, not just in community development but also in criminal justice, public safety, and social welfare? And to your question of the sucker punch, is this idea of questioning and challenging something that as a society we can expect and invite? Do we have the appetite for artists contributing critique and challenges? Fast-forward 15–20 years, what are the places where artists and others can plug in, in ways that are really legitimate, not just at the margins or in a one-off?
MICHAEL: That’s awesome. Roberto, a closing thought on the future of creative placemaking?
ROBERTO: Now that the plan is done, I’m struggling with how I operationalize belonging. Partly it’s in making equitable places. I’m not going to use the language of placemaking and place-keeping. I want to drop back from that a little. But I’m struggling a little in how I understand my own authority and privilege as a city manager. When I have a community meeting at the library, how do I mobilize or prompt the future thinking of community that needs to be generated from the stakeholder community? My stakeholder community can be a world of policymakers. But the stakeholder community of a neighborhood watch group is an interesting community. How do I work in that space? Because I can sit here and admire and love all your thoughts. And I can have a meeting with my boss and say, ‘’Here’s what phase two looks like.” The struggle right now for me is, how do I operationalize decentralized planning around community? It’s not my role in government but the notion of governance in the placemaking processes and what that governance system looks like if it includes the Boys and Girls Club and the artist and the urban planner and the city official.
MICHAEL: Jamie, any last thoughts?
JAMIE: Two things. Going back to the notion of critique and collaboration, particularly those of us who are deeply invested in the arts and culture sector often equate artists with halos, whereas artists are as fallible as any other human beings. In collaborations among artists and non-artists to build healthy, equitable, and sustainable community, I hope that both sides are open to critique and correction. That is a little bit of a negative note, so I don’t want that to be my last word.
So, one other thing. As part of our community development investment, Lyz Crane and several colleagues visited some 21 different ArtPlace organizations all over the country. In every community they visited, the leaders they met with said the same two things. One, what their community needed more than anything else was social cohesion. And two — in a tone of voice that you would use to say the sun is going to come up tomorrow — that they believe that arts and culture can deliver social cohesion. So, I’m really excited about the appetite and eagerness at this moment for these collaborations. Opportunities exist, and I’m excited to watch as artists and arts organizations step up and seize them.
MICHAEL: I am so grateful to the three of you for making this time.
Michael Rohd, a theater artist with a practice in process design and civic imagination, co-leads Sojourn Theatre and the Center for Performance and Civic Practice, and is on faculty at Arizona State University.
Roberto Bedoya is the City of Oakland’s Cultural Affairs Manager and a Creative Placemaking Fellow at Arizona State University.
Jamie Bennett, a resident of Brooklyn, New York, is Executive Director of ArtPlace America, a national partnership dedicated to enlisting artists as allies in creating equitable, healthy, and sustainable communities.
Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson, a professor at Arizona State University and advisor to foundations and government agencies, has worked nationally and locally for more than 25 years addressing urban inequality and the integration of arts and culture into planning, policy, and community development.