Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-belonging

Roberto Bedoya

The following is an expanded version of my essay “Creative Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-belonging,” first published on the Arts in a Changing America website. I’ve been asked to prepare it for the GIA Reader audience and to reflect further on the topic of belonging as it relates to my work as a public funder. To that end, I’ve expanded the coda section of the original article with additional information about Creative Placemaking projects the Pima Arts Council has supported that illuminate placemaking as belonging.

A favorite song of mine is “Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered . . . ,” the Ella Fitzgerald version that is warm, radiant, where you feel each word in pure tones. Ella sings about love — a blind love and the escape from that bewitchment. This is the song that plays for me in the background when I think about the practices of “Creative Placemaking,” which as an arts manager and policymaker, I define as those cultural activities that shape the physical and social characteristics of a place. I embrace Creative Placemaking and its aspiration as it manifests in a variety of methods — from city planning to art practices with a goal of advancing humanity. But I am bothered by what I consider a significant blind spot — a blind love of sorts — in the Creative Placemaking discourse and practices. I am referring to a lack of awareness about the politics of belonging and dis-belonging that operate in civil society.


I’m wild again, beguiled again
A simpering, whimpering child again
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered — am I

Wild can be fun. Beguiled? The jury is still out on that one. The lyrics raise the question for me about what I perceive and suspect (in some instances) is a blind love associated with Creative Placemaking practices. How do we understand and talk about Creative Placemaking? Is it the narrative of potentiality and its bewitchment that is bought, sold, and traded upon in management practices, or its engagement with spatial justice: the empowerment of talent, of community? These contextualizing concerns inform my work and the questions I am asking here.

In my work I’m in dialogue (and often in debates) with peers across the county about Creative Placemaking prompted by two significant philanthropic initiatives: The National Endowment for the Arts’ Our Town program and ArtPlace, a collaboration of numerous public and private foundations that are investing in Creative Placemaking projects nationally. What I’ve witnessed in the discussions and practices associated with Creative Placemaking is that they are tethered to a meaning of “place” manifest in the built environment, for example, artists’ live-work spaces, cultural districts, spatial landscapes. And this meaning, which operates inside the policy frame of urban planning and economic development, is OK, but it is not the complete picture. Its insufficiency lies in a lack of understanding that before you have places of belonging, you must feel you belong. Before there is the vibrant street one needs an understanding of the social dynamics on that street — the politics of belonging and dis-belonging at work in placemaking in civil society.

Our society is under a great deal of stress triggered by the continuing recession and its challenges to our economy, the growing plutocracy’s abuse of our civil rights, the Cultural War 2.0 battles over women’s rights to control their own bodies, the rights of union workers, the rights of Mexican American students to study Latino literature, the right to be free of racial profiling, the right of gays and lesbians to marry their loved ones, immigrant rights . . . you can add your own example of the politics of dis-belonging at work in civil society. The nation is far from perfect. A troubling tenor of Creative Placemaking discourse is the avoidance of addressing social and racial injustices at work in society and how they intersect with Creative Placemaking projects.

Against this background, Creative Placemaking practices must understand history, critical racial theory, and politics alongside the spatial planning and economic development theories that dominate the discourse. How race, class, poverty, and discrimination shape place — through a politics of belonging or dis-belonging — needs to be reflected upon whether one is engaged with Creative Placemaking practices as an artist, funder, developer, NGO, or governmental agency.

One needs to reflect upon US history and its troubling legacy of “placemaking” manifested in acts of displacement, removal, and containment. This history is long and horrible, from the forced movement of American Indians from their lands and their confinement to reservations, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, to the urban redevelopment movement of the 1960s and 1970s that destroyed working poor and ethnic neighborhoods across American cities using the language of blight alongside bulldozers. How is Creative Placemaking different or complicit with these actions?

What are the imperatives that infuse Creative Placemaking activities? What are the visions of our humanity that are manifest in the plurality animated by Placemaking activities? Its ethics? How do these ethics inform policies that support the distinctiveness and identity of a place?

Placemaking in city/neighborhood spaces enacts identity and activities that allow personal memories, cultural histories, imagination, and feelings to enliven the sense of “belonging” through human and spatial relationships. But a political understanding of who is in and who is out is also central to civic vitality. How do current Creative Placemaking practices support this knowledge?

The relationship of Creative Placemaking activities to civic identity must investigate who has and who doesn’t have civil rights. If Creative Placemaking activities support the politics of dis-belonging through acts of gentrification, racism, real estate speculation, all in the name of neighborhood revitalization, then it betrays the democratic ideal of having an equitable and just civil society. Is the social imaginary at work in Creative Placemaking activities when enclaves of privilege are developed in which the benchmark of success is a Whole Foods Market?

The task for us who work on Creative Placemaking activities is to assure and sustain a mindful awareness of what is authentic in Creative Placemaking. The authenticity I am invoking is grounded in the ethos of belonging. Cultural and civic belonging — how to create it; how to understand and accommodate cultural difference in matters of civic participation; how to enhance the community’s understanding of citizenship beyond the confines of leisure pursuits and consumption; how to help the citizens of a place achieve strength and prosperity through equity and civility. Having a sense of belonging, therefore, needs to be foregrounded in Creative Placemaking practices.

As a policymaker I argue for the aesthetic of belonging as central to Creative Placemaking. The blind love of Creative Placemaking that is tied to the allure of speculation culture and its economic thinking of “build it and they will come” is suffocating and unethical, and supports a politics of dis-belonging employed to manufacture a “place.” Creative Placemaking and its aesthetics of belonging contribute to and shape our person, the rights and duties of individuals crucial to a healthy democracy that animate the commons. It should also animate Creative Placemaking not as a development strategy but as a series of actions that build spatial justice, healthy communities, and sites of imaginations.

Ella’s “Bewitched” ends with some words of witnessing:

Wise at last, my eyes at last,
Are cutting you down to your size at last
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered — no more

“No More” is the assertion social and cultural activists must use to dispel Creative Placemaking’s allure and its bewitching blind-love effect. Let us support the ethics and aesthetics of Creative Placemaking grounded in belonging and have the wisdom of Ella’s witness to blind love gone wrong. Let us reflect upon the work of Creative Placemaking and ask if the activity is engaged in a politics of belonging or dis-belonging. Does it suck out creative life or support it? Is it ethical and just? And let our answers to these questions be central to our self-reflections and discussions of impact, of outcome, of success and failure in the work being done.


The images on the website that accompany these remarks are examples of arts-based civic engagement projects supported by the Tucson Pima Arts Council’s P.L.A.C.E. (People, Land, Arts, Culture and Engagement) initiative, which is informed by the “ethos of belonging” that I refer to. Launched in 2008, P.L.A.C.E. has funded fifty-seven projects to date with the additional support of the Kresge Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and the Open Society Foundation.

Examples of Creative Placemaking practices:

1. Tucson Meet Yourself: Folklore Field School

The Folklore Field School provided workshops to train adult learners in the methods, ethics, and significance of folklife, community asset mapping, and digital photographic documentation of cultural traditions.

Southern Arizona’s relationship to its land, its Indigenous and Latino cultural traditions and histories, the recent waves of Anglo retirees from the Midwest and refugees from Somalia have produced an expressive culture that reflects in part the way people understand and express their sense of place. The Field School project provides community members with training in how to observe, reflect, document, and write about cultural practices that allow memories, cultural histories, and spatial relationships to create a sense of belonging.

Field School gave community members who are often the subject of research (e.g., the Native American Yaqui community of Old Pascua in the urban core of Tucson or the cultural bearers of food traditions or heritage practices within the various neighborhoods of the city) the tools to be their own researchers in that DIY citizen movement of participatory democracy that transforms the social landscape. Field School is an example of belonging as community voices asserting agency that shapes and defines place.

2. Bill Mackey: Worker Transit Authority

The WTA presented events that incorporated performance, graphics, and data in a participatory manner designed to facilitate discussion about the issues of land use, infrastructure, transportation, and the environment.

A sense of belonging ties us to the built environment and is linked to the social infrastructures of a locale — its buildings, its relationships, the social imaginary of its citizens. The mayor, the city manager, a real estate developer, an architect, a neighborhood association, an artist, all have visions of a place and its creative potential. The Worker Transit Authority worked with these visions and asked Tucsonans to reflect on how they move through the city — by walking, public transportation, bicycling, or driving. It asked us to think about our spatial landscape and what we want as placemakers that animates the interactions between space and community. This example of Creative Placemaking prompts reflection on urban planning processes and spatial justice concerns that address the wants and needs of the public — the routes for moving across town that create a sense of belonging.

3. Finding Voice

The Finding Voice program engages refugees and immigrants at Catalina Magnet High School to develop their personal and community voice through literacy, visual arts, and civic engagement.

Belonging and civic identity are fundamental to Creative Placemaking. The development of our civic identities through acts of participation, ranging from hanging out in public spaces to voting, intersects with our understanding of our civil rights. The homeless in a public park, the petitioner gathering signatures in front of the supermarket, and the street vendors at the crosswalk all animate place and raise the question of our rights and their relation to place.

Finding Voice works with refugee youth who often face the politics of dis-belonging because of their social status. Their Creative Placemaking activities include art projects at the mall and at bus stops, as well as in print publications that use stories and images to make visible the invisible — their lives that animate place — and affirm the impact of the lives of refugee youth upon our social vitality. Their voices and experiences assert a civic identity that demonstrates how they belong to Tucson as members of our society, as placemakers.