Advancing Livability

A Tool to Help Funders Leverage Creative Placemaking

Alyce Myatt

As arts funders, we know that extensive research has shown that the presence of arts and culture activities at the neighborhood level can improve health and safety and promote a sense of well-being among residents. But how do we identify what activities already exist in a community and, as important, where there are gaps so we can be proactive in advancing a community’s livability?

Philanthropy is always in search of opportunities with the potential to bring about positive change, whether it is through taking a chance on an organization or an individual. To fully tap potential, funders must engage people at the ground level and utilize tools to measure not only impact but, more importantly, the value of that impact to bring about needed and lasting systemic change.

We are increasingly becoming a data-driven society, and good, inclusive data can help us make informed decisions. Comprehensive data enable us to understand the change being measured, and a tool to collect and analyze that data over time allows us to compare what was then and what is now and envision what can be.

We are in a time of monumental transition driven by technological and demographic change. How art is made and consumed is evolving because artists and audiences are as well. Additionally, the creative community continues to need affordable live-and-work space and a vibrant ecosystem that allows emerging artists to not only sustain themselves but grow in success in conjunction with the surrounding community.

Grantmakers in the Arts, along with others, have published articles about equitable funding: support for urban institutions versus those in rural communities; funding for large nonprofit arts organizations, such as museums and orchestras, versus small, community-based art centers; support for traditional arts, such as classical music, versus newer forms of expression, like hip-hop and digital art; and above all, the need for ethnic, gender, and age diversity among supporters as well as arts organizations. The funding of traditional art should never be rejected for the unfamiliar or the new, but humanity is diverse and always advancing, and to act as responsible funders requires the philanthropic sector to grow and advance along with it. This includes embracing tools to help make equitable decisions about to whom and where to target support.

Equity, livability, artist sustainability, technology, audience engagement, data — these are elements that a group of Baltimore arts-related organizations and funders wrestled with as we looked for a tool to help us have a valuable impact on the city.

Effective creative placemaking relies on the ability to work collectively with all community stakeholders including residents, artists and arts organizations, businesses, elected officials, and, of course, funders. An essential step in realizing a creative placemaking vision is accessing accurate data that describe who and what already exists in a community. Mapping arts and culture alongside demographic, economic, crime and safety, and other community data is powerful; it allows stakeholders to visualize how resources are distributed and how this distribution changes over time as a result of actions and investments.

Mapping Livability

In the past few years, stakeholders have begun mapping arts and culture activities using geographic information systems (GIS), which are tools for visualizing all types of data and creating maps. Among the first was Philadelphia, through their city’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. They created CultureBlocks,, built on the Policy Map platform.

CultureBlocks was launched in spring 2013 with the goal of creating a tool that will, according to one of its funders, ArtPlace America, “make Philly arts and culture data publicly accessible and easy to find. … Furthermore, the tool will allow this data to be mapped with real estate and socio-economic information to better inform public policy and investment decisions. The benefits of data and locational intelligence will be available to citizens, artists, investors, and organizations.”

According to Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, CultureBlocks is used by the civic, social, philanthropic, and arts sectors, although the dominant users are academics, urban planners, and community development corporations. There is a shared interest across all the types of users in determining how the creative economy is having an impact on Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.

A number of cities, including Baltimore, have contacted Philadelphia and studied the CultureBlocks platform in advance of mounting their own projects. After observing CultureBlocks, the City of Seattle launched SpaceLab NW. According to their team, “SpaceLab NW visualizes the results of our ongoing project to catalogue cultural space in Seattle. Our goal is to count every square foot of every theater, gallery, artist studio, rehearsal room, bookstore, music club, museum, cinema, and other cultural space in the city.”

Phase I of Seattle’s SpaceLab NW launched in March 2017 after two years of research and development. The map is intended to be a tool for policy analysis to assess housing affordability, displacement, poverty, impacts on cultural community, the flow of resources, and the region’s overall growth. Seattle understands the value of arts and culture in relation to the vitality of their region and wants the arts to be placed on same plane as other indicators. Phase II, scheduled to launch by the beginning of 2018, will embrace Seattle’s surrounding county and include additional indicators, such as demographics and transit.

The greater Cincinnati arts organization ArtsWave has created two maps under the Arts Atlas label, one for neighborhoods and one for detailed arts education information. The Arts Atlas maps cover a seventeen-county region that includes counties in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. Each map has a wealth of information — so much that one map combining all the information would become too cluttered and difficult to manage.

These maps began as a single data repository for groups ArtsWave funded and became a creative placemaking tool to be used to create better strategies for civic improvement. Their aim is to illuminate and advance arts strategies and overall public policy for the region.

New Orleans has created the Cultural Economy Planning Map, which “allows the user to view a large variety of cultural, cultural economy, infrastructure, and social data, separately or in combination, throughout New Orleans.” For the past seven years, New Orleans has produced the New Orleans Cultural Economy Snapshot designed to “better understand the size, composition, and value of the cultural economy to the City of New Orleans, for use by government, cultural producers, businesses, and non-profits to further opportunities to grow this industry and to continue to look towards our city’s future.” They combined the Snapshot data with the city’s other GIS data to produce their mapping project. As a result, arts and culture have become a part of every city agency’s workflow, and the project enables them to identify clusters of artists and arts activity. They have been able to change zoning ordinances and inform businesses of optimal geographic locations. The map is extensively used by the police department, the Office of Economic Development, the Recreation Development Commission, the Revenue and Finance Departments, and many others across the city government.

Mapping Baltimore

Baltimore has artists. We have arts organiza-tions and world-class arts-related institutions of higher education. We have neighborhoods that have visible arts activities but also areas of the city where the details are unknown. Before the mapping of arts and culture data, we knew we had artists practicing in every discipline, but we didn’t know what resources they needed. Living space? Working space? Performance and exhibition space? Connections to schools for arts education? Funder information?

Furthermore, the equitable distribution of resources is always a crucial concern. We didn’t know what kinds of formal or informal arts activities were or were not taking place within many of Baltimore’s distinct neighborhoods, and whether some neighborhoods were considered “art deserts.”

Research conducted by the Social Impact of the Arts Project at the University of Pennsylvania shows that art activities at the neighborhood level can serve as a strong indicator of well-being. In Baltimore, data representing the social and economic vitality of Baltimore’s neighborhoods have been collected annually for years; however, this effort did not include comprehensive arts and culture data. It was time to collect and combine arts and culture data sets with the social and economic information to get a true picture of the health of Baltimore neighborhoods and, therefore, the city as a whole.

This thought process and recognition of a need to track support for arts and culture were echoed across conversations with numerous community stakeholders. It led to the creation of a tool for the city: the GEOLOOM co>map. The co stands for community, collaboration, and cohesion in Baltimore as well as the data contributed by GEOLOOM’s users. It is an interactive online map that currently holds over ninety data sets from a diversity of sources that can be updated regularly. It includes schools that are linked to arts and culture organizations, artists’ studios, and local non-arts businesses that feature arts activities, but GEOLOOM also includes neighborhoods with the highest and lowest unemployment levels and areas with the highest and lowest high school graduation rates.

The development of the GEOLOOM co>map was a collective effort, bringing together a dynamic team composed of the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance-Jacob France Institute, the foremost aggregator of Baltimore data and the GEOLOOM co>map project manager; the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, the city’s arts council; the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, the city’s largest arts and culture membership organization; and the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, a local private foundation that has made a significant contribution to Baltimore’s arts ecosystem.

The group became the project’s steering committee and held meetings with key stakeholders to determine what kinds of information would be most helpful. Additionally, GEOLOOM brought together focus groups that included residents, civic leaders, the arts community, funders, and businesses.

A tool like the GEOLOOM co>map lets users track and compare data year over year. It lets users identify healthy growth and illuminates areas needing attention. It can be used for research, planning, program development, exploration, and investment. This kind of information is useful for everyone — city planners, artists, civic leaders, residents, large and small businesses, neighborhood associations, citywide and neighborhood-based arts and culture organizations, nonprofit and for-profit real estate developers, private foundations, and government funders. And while GEOLOOM is not a website where the public can find out about upcoming events in the city, it includes links to those organizations that provide that kind of information.

Using the arts to foster community change is not a new notion; however, the naming of the practice as creative placemaking has galvanized cities and towns across the country to pursue cultural planning and integrate the arts in their overall vision for their communities. Arts and culture have proven to be a significant driver of economic development. While Baltimore has some history of fostering arts and culture, a better understanding of the landscape and ability to view these data within the context of demographic information, including income, education, race, and so on, offered a deeper opportunity to both understand present impact and make decisions about the future.

The GEOLOOM co>map was launched mid-July of 2017 and is currently being introduced to a variety of communities, city agencies, organizations, and foundations through training. While it is too soon to determine GEOLOOM’s overall success, the hope is that the map will be incorporated into decision making by stakeholders who can see through GEOLOOM how arts and culture are woven into Baltimore’s neighborhoods as well as the impact of their absence. The responses so far have been positive and come from every sector of the city. The inclusive process used to create GEOLOOM helped to bridge disparate neighborhoods and interests in what has been a very fragmented city. The process has also raised the profile of arts and culture in Baltimore and brought attention to the valuable role they play in fostering livability.

During GEOLOOM’s development and launch, we spoke with the various cities and towns that did not have mapping projects but have considered developing one as a valid approach to better understanding their communities. With that in mind, a handbook was created that details the process of the GEOLOOM co>map from concept through to launch. It includes research and development resources, a list of the community stakeholders that were consulted, the project timeline and budget, and the questions and results of a community participation survey conducted to better understand the types of arts and culture activities important to Baltimoreans.

Any online software project is only as good as the frequency of its use. In advance of writing this piece, I spoke with Cincinnati, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Seattle to see how their projects were doing. GIS maps can be expensive and time-consuming; however, they all agreed that the benefits of a comprehensive central repository of arts, culture, social, and economic indicators are invaluable.

When asked about the challenges they are experiencing with their maps post-launch, they all agreed on the same key issues:

  • Art is generally seen as ancillary to a community, and therefore government and private funding is extremely limited.
  • While cities have embraced data, people often wrongly assume that arts and culture should not be a part of a data inventory. Arts and culture data should be fully integrated and automated within city’s data systems, and every agency should be trained on its use and value.
  • A GIS map should be updated at least annually, which requires data identification and collection throughout the year. Acquiring the funds for the staff to do this, along with continuous software maintenance, is a challenge.
  • Additionally, it is necessary to have financial resources and staff support to do year-round promotion and outreach. This includes holding small-group demonstrations and workshops for the various sectors of the community and generating stories from data analysis for ongoing press placement.

We are at the early stages of using GIS to map arts and culture data, and we are, therefore, undergoing an iterative process familiar to any design effort. Each city’s iteration allows those that follow to improve on the effort, and those early adopters to refine their project in future releases.

There are fewer than a handful of national funders who support this type of work. Thus, there is clearly a definitive role for funders at the local level not only in starting a GIS mapping project but also in insuring that it is sustained and improved. In return, a holistic and inclusive view of all the types of arts and culture in a community will improve its livability.