Creative Democracy

Applying the Lessons of Creative Placemaking to Policymaking

Kiley Arroyo

A society’s values are the basis upon which all else is built. These values and the ways they are expressed are a society’s culture. The way a society governs itself cannot be fully democratic without there being clear avenues for the expression of community values, and unless these expressions directly affect the directions society takes. These processes are culture at work.
— Jon Hawkes, The Fourth Pillar of Sustainability: Culture’s Essential Role in Public Planning

When we look back on this era of art history and community development, we will inevitably encounter the emerging domain of creative placemaking and the increasingly prominent role of equity in all of its dimensions. But what else will we find? Merely an interesting assortment of unconnected projects? Or perhaps also a turning point in the field’s evolution wherein local arts and culture, community-led design, and citizen creativity were recast as essential components of transformative systems change? One cannot help but wonder.

While pieces of the infrastructure needed to sustain creative placemaking practices exist, they have yet to coalesce into a cohesive whole. Increasingly, arts funders are investing in lateral strategies to integrate creative placemaking across organizations, sectors, and systems. However, insights gained from local successes have not been fully translated into the systems-level policy change required to have sustained impact. By adopting a comprehensive model of place-based change, funders can incentivize local actors to explore how creative placemaking practices can be integrated not only horizontally but also vertically, generating more conducive conditions for this approach to become the standard model of equitable development.

Horizontal integration strategies cut across and connect programs, organizations, and sectors that lie within a nested system. Vertical integration strategies focus on ensuring policies developed by different levels of government create an enabling environment for horizontal strategies to take root. Community change researchers believe that comprehensive approaches that include vertical efforts that prioritize the relationships between policies at the federal, state, and municipal levels in concert with horizontal activities at the ground level can help stakeholders from different sectors establish a shared vision and understand how efforts can be aligned to be mutually reinforcing. For example, state-level policy that requires arts education to be offered in all public schools helps to create an enabling environment for teaching artists and other kinds of arts education providers.

In his inaugural address, President Trump announced, “We are transferring power from Washington, DC, and giving it back to you, the people.” While this shift places a greater burden on local actors to do more with less, it also invites leaders to adopt more participatory governance models that empower citizens to play an active role in shaping their communities. While the availability and sources of funding will surely be altered in the near future, this foundational change could provide the opportunity to galvanize a more comprehensive model for creative place- and policymaking, and the equity movement more broadly.

The definition of creative placemaking differs among key actors, yet one shared aspiration has been improving the quality of life for all citizens through the intentional use of arts-based strategies that empower local residents and leverage communities’ distinct cultural assets. Since 2011, the National Endowment for the Arts, ArtPlace America, and the Kresge Foundation, among other funders, have invested over $200 million toward an impressive variety of creative placemaking projects in all kinds of communities. Increasingly, funders are investing in horizontal strategies to integrate creative placemaking into diverse organizations, systems, and sectors in the arts and beyond. Less emphasis, however, has been placed on understanding how creative placemaking can be integrated vertically to facilitate the participatory development of public policy. Vertical integration can help to create more enabling conditions for equitable development by providing a mechanism to ensure that the voices of those with less political access and influence are not excluded from transforming the systems that allocate power and resources. By expanding the focus of creative placemaking beyond altering the physical attributes of place, funders can help demonstrate the value of this emerging field in ways that improve its long-term sustainability.

The Role of Policy in Placemaking

The techniques of creative placemaking can provide both physical and ideological space for people with varying worldviews and social positions to interact, negotiate differences, share power, and come to care for the common good. A growing body of evidence demonstrates how these practices can amplify the efficiency of investments in both the built and natural environments, enrich the aesthetic qualities of place, strengthen social fabric, and fuel economic growth. As our knowledge of the impact of creative placemaking matures, how might we begin to apply the techniques of creative placemaking toward achieving greater equity through more imaginative and participatory policymaking? Developing a common definition of equity and the means by which it can be achieved may be an important first step.

The Center for Social Inclusion’s definition of racial equity, which can also be applied to social equity generally, reads, “A lens and outcome, which requires an inclusive approach that empowers people to transform systems that allocate power and resources in order to create communities where all people have equitable access to opportunity.” Creative placemaking has the capacity to serve as this “inclusive approach.” To realize this promise, we must reflect on the function, both perceived and potential, of creative practices, on the role of storytelling in policymaking, and on ways adaptive change frameworks can ground and connect individual projects to larger systems of practice.

When thinking about comprehensive community development, it may also be helpful to consider three primary components of place: the “hardware” of physical infrastructure, the “software” of economic systems and public policies, and the “operating system” of the everyday lived experience of community members. Creative placemaking has the capacity to enhance each of these elements in mutually reinforcing ways. To date, however, vertical integration of creative placemaking as a means to facilitate the participatory development of public policies that increase opportunities for creative placemaking and reinforce investments across all three components of place has not been fully explored. By incorporating better vertical integration, creative practices can help ensure that the voices of those with less political access and influence are not excluded from transforming the systems that allocate power and resources toward development activities of all kinds, including creative placemaking.

Movement toward vertical integration of policy and practice requires making clear the distinction between public policy and organizational strategy, which are often conflated. Public policy refers to the regulatory frameworks, laws, and funding priorities related to different areas of civic concern and the ways government makes decisions at multiple scales. Put simply, public policy is the mechanization of value, the applied expression of public priorities, and accountability for realizing those aims. Though sometimes seemingly invisible, public policy, whether set at the municipal, state, or federal level, plays a critical role in shaping the environments in which we live, work, and create.

Conversely, cultural values inform public policy in implicit and explicit ways. For example, environmental awareness represents a fundamental cultural shift that has contributed to the creation of new legislation. Hence, public policymaking is inherently a cultural activity because it is grounded in human values. When designed within an equity frame, creative placemaking can reveal these community values and help stakeholders establish a shared vision. That vision, when intentionally connected to larger systems, can be sent upstream to decision makers, integrated into legislative agendas, and will eventually flow back down to communities in the form of responsive policy. Deployed this way, creative placemaking practices have the potential to fundamentally shift the power dynamics that hold structural inequities in place by ensuring policy is created by (and benefits) a more inclusive set of stakeholders.

The Future Is Unwritten

Critical imagination is a requirement of effective systems change, for without it we remain confined to the status quo. The vibrancy of any place largely depends on how successfully it mobilizes the widespread participation of its people to cocreate new solutions rooted in their stories and experiences. Society’s capacity to transcend existing challenges, address “wicked problems,” and adapt to uncertainty relies on our ability to cooperatively envisage, assess, and realize alternative narratives. This process represents an act of collective imagination.

Complex systems like communities evolve by learning how to behave differently in response to a changing environment. Shared experiences strengthen connections between diverse groups and allow ideas to flow more freely, which improves a community’s capacity to navigate uncertainty and ultimately achieve a more functional fit with its environment. Social scientists use the term futures literacy to describe thinking imaginatively about the future so that we can challenge our current assumptions, make explicit our shared values, and engage in rich dialogue with others. The ideas and expectations developed through improved futures literacy contribute to more robust decision making in the present about the preferred trajectory of local development. When framed as a tool for advancing forward-looking collaborative problem solving, creative placemaking can help communities evolve by increasing futures literacy. Strengthening this capacity sets into motion a healthy process of collective reflection and action, stimulating change and collaborative learning that can gradually encompass a wider range of community issues across multiple scales of practice.

Connecting the Dots

“Collaborating for Equity and Justice: Moving beyond Collective Impact,” a report released by Nonprofit Quarterly in January, articulates a set of guiding principles intended to facilitate participatory systems change. The recommendations, coauthored by six social justice practitioners, highlight the critical role of policy in advancing transformation at scale: “Policy offers the most direct route to measurable progress, but all too often collective impact practice stops at the programmatic level.” The authors’ suggestion is “to amplify the possibilities inherent in local successes and translate the lessons and insights into the systems, policy, and structural change needed to have sustained impact on whole populations.”

The capacity exists to both deepen investments in individual projects and connect them to larger systems of activity. Creative placemaking has the same not-yet-realized catalytic potential to help policymakers and community members imagine the future implications of different policy options and local investments. To activate this unrealized promise, creative placemaking practices must be grounded in more comprehensive strategies that weave horizontal efforts to align work across programs, organizations, and sectors together with vertical efforts to work at multiple scales — both integral components of complex place-based change.

“Creating Change through Arts, Culture, and Equitable Development: A Policy and Practice Primer,” a report released by PolicyLink in February, articulates ways in which arts and culture actors can leverage public policies and major investments to centralize their role in equitable development. The report includes case studies that demonstrate how different communities have employed creative strategies to operationalize their equity-focused policy objectives. The authors advocate for the integration of arts and culture into community development systems, practices, and comprehensive plans. They also describe ways in which public agencies and philanthropy can “expand their practices and invest in arts and culture assets” in order to strengthen the capacity of these resources to contribute to greater equity. In this context, creative practices are primarily used to implement equity-oriented policy objectives. But complementary examples are emerging, both in the United States and internationally, of ways creative practices, including storytelling, cultural organizing, resident-driven impact assessments, design fiction, and visual arts, are being used to facilitate the participatory development of innovative public policy as well.

The Art of What If?

Increasingly, municipal agencies are integrating creative practices as means to empower a diverse cross section of stakeholders to directly inform the policies that shape their lives. Government initiatives around the world are demonstrating how arts-based methods amplify marginalized voices and help communities find common cause.

One example of the vertical integration of creative practices to facilitate the collaborative development of public policy comes from the UK-based Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC). In 2015, the AHRC launched the ProtoPublics initiative to support researchers and community partners in becoming active participants in “crafting new services, experiences, projects, and policies that address contemporary issues.” A series of ProtoPolicy workshops were held in partnership with individuals who had direct experience of specific issues. Workshops employed “design fictions,” a participatory method that uses texts, visualization, artifacts, films, and storytelling to generate provocative scenarios, kindling insights into the future shape and direction of public policy. In the initial phase of ProtoPolicy, older community members participated in a series of creative workshops that examined the country’s Aging in Place policy agenda. By prompting visions of what a future of “flexible living” might look like from the perspective of those who will experience that reality firsthand and empowering them to directly inform public investments, ProtoPolicy was able to build a shared understanding of the constraints and opportunities inherent to different policy options in ways that recognized older residents as a critical source of insight. Those stories and the insights they revealed were then used to design responsive policies and strategic investments for Britain’s elderly. Today, sectors ranging from public health to sustainable development are now using this citizen-led approach to public policymaking.

Port Phillip, Australia’s Community Pulse initiative, launched in 2001, intentionally uses place-based measures that relate to people’s everyday experiences as a means to inspire residents to express themselves and play a central role in local governance. Local leaders asked community members: How do you know your neighborhood is getting better? The community’s reply: When we feel control over our destiny. In response, policymakers invited residents to set benchmarks and long-term development goals to help safeguard local assets and generate evidence to stimulate political action and accountability. This participatory methodology provides a vehicle for multidirectional feedback between the City of Port Phillip council and the community that strengthens individuals’ capacity to identify and assess issues as well as participate in the design, development, and delivery of policies. A formal evaluation in 2011 found that this creative strategy has contributed to “services and infrastructure that are better tailored to need, the community has greater faith in the process of local government [i.e., trust], and the City of Port Phillip council has greater faith in the community’s commitment to their vision for the future [i.e., reciprocity].” As a result, the initiative has been formally integrated with the city’s long-range Municipal Public Health and Wellbeing Plan.

In 2013, the City of Minneapolis and Intermedia Arts established Creative CityMaking (CCM), a multiyear, arts-based innovation initiative within local government designed to advance the city’s goal of eliminating economic and racial disparities. Through in-depth collaborations between city departments, skilled community artists, and the public, CCM demonstrates how arts-based engagement can inform policymaking at multiple levels of government, provide underrepresented communities with direct access to influence decision making, and revitalize municipal agencies with fresh ideas. One such collaboration was designed to facilitate the development of the city’s emerging Blueprint for Equitable Engagement, a five-year plan to ensure local leaders seek, value, and incorporate all community voices in public processes. To highlight the range of perspectives, local artists created an “equity pulpit” from which community members could share and document their views. The pulpit moved around the city, appearing at block parties, festivals, and parks, where stories were collected from individuals whose voices were previously unlikely to be heard through traditional engagement practices. In a subsequent evaluation, CCM staff learned that 90 percent of the program participants reported they had never contributed to a local planning process before and that participation by communities of color increased from 30 percent of the total participants to 60 percent. By connecting this program to larger public systems and embracing an adaptive framework, CCM provides participants with a powerful vehicle for identifying emerging opportunities to proactively address the strategic priorities of a risk-averse city. By intentionally designing projects from the outset with these needs in focus, CCM has been able to demonstrate its value in ways that build the political will necessary to sustain such programs over time. Creative CityMaking is now institutionalized within the City of Minneapolis.

Performing Statistics, a project by Art180 and Legal Aid Justice Center, connects incarcerated teens, artists, designers, educators, and leading state policy advocates in an effort to transform Virginia’s juvenile justice system. The project asks the question, How would criminal justice reform differ if it were led by currently incarcerated teens? Performing Statistics empowers youth to become civic leaders and directly affect laws and public policy that influence the school-to-prison pipeline.

Among its many efforts to advance social justice, NOCD-NY weaves arts-based practices into the typically closed, meeting-based process of public budgeting, enabling a greater variety of people and perspectives to inform local investment decisions. Participatory Budgeting (PB) connects community members who might not usually interact. For example, Friends of the High Line has teens, many of whom live in nearby public housing, help run their PB workshops, which strengthens relationships between public housing residents and others living on Manhattan’s West Side. By making physical representations of projects for funding consideration, the process becomes more concrete, contributing to more transparent decision making.

These examples demonstrate how creative placemaking can function as a tool for institutional change, advancing collaborative problem solving and realizing alternative futures that benefit everyone. They achieve this by developing individual projects within systems-change frameworks, fostering meaningful dialogue between diverse parts of local systems, expanding access and redistributing power, and creating space for new possibilities to emerge. Furthermore, these strategies identify and leverage the unique expertise each participant brings to the table, which is consistent with any asset-based strategy. Finally, each example demonstrates how working in partnership includes a shared commitment to using insights generated to fuel systemic change.

Pathways Forward

The infrastructure supporting creative placemaking across the United States is still developing. Funders can play a valuable role in helping individual pieces integrate into a resilient system. A comprehensive infrastructure that combines supportive policy, sufficient capital, a robust and accessible knowledge base, skill- and relationship-building resources, leadership development opportunities, and a reinforcing combination of horizontal and vertical integration strategies can help to sustain creative placemaking long-term.

Public policy provides one important mechanism for institutionalizing constructive creativity, while creative activities themselves may inform future policies. By embracing a systems perspective of the diverse ecology of activity already under way, funders can begin to draw out macrolevel insights to enhance upstream and downstream activities in ways that accelerate a more cohesive field of practice. Benefit can be found in allocating resources toward deepening our understanding of ways creative methods can facilitate participatory policymaking at various scales. Helping practitioners design projects from the outset with policy change as the ultimate objective by setting benchmarks and incorporating critical evaluation can help substantiate the value of creative placemaking to municipal agencies and communities.

Funders might also examine how they can strengthen grantees’ knowledge of existing systems-change frameworks and design projects to better align with comprehensive community plans. Furthermore, funders can learn from grantees with policy acumen and expertise working at the systems scale by coupling financial investments with the expectation that these assets be mobilized in service of the field’s evolution. By embracing a bird’s-eye view of the work under way, a holistic model of place and adaptive change, and a sustained commitment to advancing inclusive and equitable development over time, funders can widen the impact of their work, allowing it the space to develop into more long-lasting solutions.

In a world that is increasingly divided and uncertain, communities need creative approaches that promote inclusive dialogue, harness the cultural vitality that exists in all places, and leverage the solidarity that springs forth when individuals recognize their interdependence and come together to imagine the shared futures they want. As political forces reshape the role of localities, funders are uniquely positioned to directly affect the direction of development in new ways that build community power and position cultural considerations at the heart of governance.