Vacant Properties are Blank Canvases Cities are Reimagining with Creative Placemaking
Arts and culture are being tactically deployed on vacant properties to alter community perceptions and renew development interest. Four cities are proving it works.
Vacant properties can feel unsettling and unsafe. They detract from the appearance of the neighborhood. Worse, abandoned and derelict properties can also attract crime and illegal dumping. As their conditions deteriorate, vacant properties can drag surrounding property values down. And the longer a property remains vacant, the greater the drag can become.
Vacant properties can also cluster together. Unfortunately, the more vacant properties there are in close proximity, the more the negative effects of vacancy can be compounded. Such downward spirals of vacancy can be difficult to reverse, especially for smaller communities.
Vacant properties also hurt municipal budgets significantly through both: (1) lost tax revenue, and (2) higher costs that result from greater code enforcement actions, structure fires, and environmental cleanups. Low resource communities need strategies they can implement with little or no capital that are still strong enough to stem the bleeding vacant properties bring to municipal bottom lines and improve community health, safety and home values that are so burdened by blight.
Now a new report from the Center for Community Progress (CCP) and Metris Arts Consulting, commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts, Creative Placemaking on Vacant Properties: Lessons Learned from Four Cities, contains case studies and best practices showing how communities can leverage the high power of creative placemaking to repurpose vacant properties with low capital. By breaking community perceptions, these typically low-cost strategies can make meaningful short-term change and start neighborhoods on the path to revitalization.
The guidance in CCP’s free report is valuable reading for any professional, stakeholder or advocate that cares about vacancy. CCP’s report begins with a definition of creative placemaking and explores the use of arts and culture strategies on vacant properties. It then dives very deeply into the essential elements of creative placemaking and its role in turning around vacancy and revitalizing distressed communities.
The report provides a discussion rich with useful takeaways and lessons learned from communities that have successfully engaged in this work. CCP visited four communities in the course of researching this insightful report: Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania; Newburgh, New York; Macon, Georgia; and Kalamazoo, Michigan. Detailed case studies across each of four cities are described with unique lessons in each.
What each city’s work has in common is the use of arts and culture to bring new activity and life to vacant properties. By making dramatic, if uncostly and impermanent, changes to the appearance of an abandoned property, the report found that it is possible to make a big difference on the block.
As the report posits regarding the negative stigma:
Such non-hypothetical, replicable examples will be welcome additions to the repertoire of community development advocates and practitioners across the country. Appropriate for all audiences, Creative Placemaking on Vacant Properties: Lessons Learned from Four Cities clearly explains these projects to anyone who might emulate such strategies.
What is Creative Placemaking?
The report surveys numerous definitions of creative placemaking, including: “[i]n creative placemaking, partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities.”
According to another definition, creative placemaking “animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired,” the report notes. Or, creative placemaking is, simply, any project “in which art plays an intentional and integrated role in place-based community planning and development.”
The practice of creative placemaking can take various forms, from temporary visual exhibits and live performances to permanent fixtures and brick-and-mortar spaces. And it can involve a varying group of public and private sector stakeholders. Local artists could work with residents to create artworks that enhance their neighborhood and encapsulate their shared experiences. A nonprofit art center might provide after-school lessons and apprenticeships so that neighborhood children in a low-income area have a safe place to hang out and learn marketable skills. A neighborhood business association might start an art walk or cultural festival that draws new visitors and their dollars to the small business corridor, where they mingle with residents and bring new life to the street. Or local government might work with a neighborhood to designate an arts district and provide incentives, infrastructure, and safety upgrades to turn it into a destination while improving the quality of life for residents.
Essential Elements of Creative Placemaking
The CCP report outlines three focus elements to creative placemaking: (1) specific place-based, (2) a community-centered process, and (3) strategic integration with other strategies. Each of these is summarized below:
Place-Based: True to its name, creative placemaking practitioners root their work in a specific place. A concert hall that serves a whole city may act as a cultural boon, but unless its owners collaborate with community members and non-arts entities to achieve community development objectives, it does not rise to the level of creative placemaking. Creative placemaking asks, “How can arts and culture-based strategies help us achieve community priorities (physical, social, or economic)? How can we leverage the community’s existing assets?” Practitioners sometimes use arts and culture for “placekeeping,” an attempt to preserve a cultural heritage or community dynamic that may be in danger of disappearing as socioeconomic forces encroach.
Community-Centered Process: Effective creative placemaking is centered not only on a specific place, but around the people who live, work, and play there. Community-centered efforts include engaging the residents and business owners to brainstorm about what the place can or should be, to inform on what it is and how it should remain. Placemaking worth emulating is not about buildings and blocks, but about the people who experience the place. If practitioners approach this work with a singular goal of maximizing real estate value, their efforts may lead to physical or cultural displacement. Keeping people at the center of the process ensures that the art is done with the community and not to the community.
Integration with other Strategies: Creative placemaking is not a silver bullet. It will not on its own turn around a neighborhood; rather, it is one tool practitioners can use in concert with other tools as part of an approach that includes housing preservation or development, economic development, and resident-serving programs. When applied to vacancy, creative placemaking can serve as a valuable approach alongside more traditional strategies like code enforcement, demolition, and resale. For example, a building with artwork on it may be less likely to be vandalized, or an event on a vacant lot may bring people to the neighborhood who might consider purchasing property there.
The bottom line is that incorporating the arts and cultures into place-based community development can spark fresh interest in vacant property. As such, it’s an approach that can lead to actual bottom-up real estate development. But as a community-centered process, creative placemaking is a powerful tool to support equitable development and inclusive revitalization that benefits the entire community.
Creative Placemaking on Vacant Properties: Lessons Learned from Four Cities is an approachable, practical guide that any community can use to get creative and begin the process to transform their own vacant properties. The beneficial impacts of arts and culture projects can come almost immediately, but the deeper adjustments in community perception that result can lead to broad-based benefits that pay dividends over the long term.
Metris Arts Consulting: Rachel Engh, Susan Fitter Harris, Anne Gadwa Nicodemus
Center for Community Progress: Danielle Lewinski, Chelsea A. Allinger
ABOUT CENTER FOR COMMUNITY PROGRESS
The mission of Center for Community Progress is to foster strong, equitable communities where vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties are transformed into assets for neighbors and neighborhoods. Founded in 2010, Community Progress is the leading national, nonprofit resource for urban, suburban, and rural communities seeking to address the full cycle of property revitalization. The organization fulfills its mission by nurturing strong leadership and supporting systemic reforms. Community Progress works to ensure that public, private, and community leaders have the knowledge and capacity to create and sustain change. It also works to ensure that all communities have the policies, tools, and resources they need to support the effective, equitable reuse of vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties.
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