Building More Equitable Communities with Creative Placemaking

Integrating arts and culture through creative placemaking can help create more equitable and restorative environments.

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Article from International Arts + Mind Lab's Research Team:

For better or worse, the spaces we inhabit shape the contours of our lives.

But for many racial minorities, these spaces literally embody the systemic inequity and racism they face.

People of color have higher rates of chronic medical conditions, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and kidney disease.  Individuals from underserved communities are also more likely to have an undiagnosed chronic disease.

These health inequities have been linked to long-standing barriers to affordable and healthy food, adequate transportation, and fair housing, which are the product of decades of redlining and systemic racism in many communities.

Inequitable spaces lead to and perpetuate inequitable lives.

Creating better, more equitable communities requires building a livable environment in which residents can achieve their fullest potential while celebrating their humanity.  Incorporating the arts and culture into this process is essential.

Restoring Dignity Through Creative Placemaking

Creative placemaking is the strategic use of arts and culture to shape the character, both physical and social, of a place so that it promotes and improves positive change and growth. Applied to health, the concept acknowledges that built environments are most livable and health-promoting when they incorporate arts and cultural experiences. The practice is particularly effective when it prioritizes equitable representation of residents’ identities and values, and when it directly serves residents’ needs.

In New York City, for example, the non-profit Uni Project creates custom-designed pop-up learning environments in parks, plazas and other public spaces for at-risk children to gather, read, draw and learn.  In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the City of Asylum arts and social service organization transforms vacant and blighted residential properties into rent-free homes for “endangered” literary writers who in turn teach, hold public readings, and foster cultural exchange with surrounding communities.

Arts-based community development was not something historically thought of or valued amongst community planners or even activists for social equity, said Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson, a community planning expert and professor at Arizona State University.  Dr. Jackson shared her experiences recently during the Summer Social Justice Series, co-organized by the Department of Neurology at Johns Hopkins Medicine and the American Neurological Association.

Even though her peers considered her work in creative placemaking as off-mission, Dr. Jackson knew this arts-based approach was central to the healing of historically marginalized communities.  She explained that censorship of individual and communal expression through speech, art and culture is a textbook tool of oppression.

Through this lens, Dr. Jackson emphasized the importance of community development and its role in “reckoning with harm, with dehumanization – [the] need to heal, to restore dignity, and to tend to our humanity.”

“We aspire to help people survive often, but not thrive,” she said of the community planning field.

Instead, it is necessary to restore dignity to the people living those spaces by helping them cultivate cultural participation and self-determination. This ongoing process requires collaborative work from artists, policymakers, institutions and, most importantly, the community.

Artists Create – and Help Sustain– Places

For Elizabeth Burden, a multidisciplinary artist living in Tucson, Arizona, her work has always been about reflecting and helping people reimagine both the spaces they inhabit and what that place could be.  “The spatial is a fundamental aspect of our embodied lives,” she said in a recent webinar on “Racial Equity in Creative Placemaking” hosted by Ioby, a crowdfunding platform for community-led change.

In one piece made with other artists and activists, Burden started a project called “Transit Talks”, which aimed to foster discussion about transit culture and options in Tucson by capturing photos and “video poems” at bus stops throughout the metropolitan area.  With this project, she wanted residents to see “bus stops as not only a place to exit one’s neighborhood and go someplace else, but as entrances in the neighborhood.”

Burden noted that while creative placemaking is now often used as a way of fostering civic engagement, development and improvement, it can also be used to interrogate contested spaces: who was there before, who is there now, and who is this for?

Even in the most benign cases of placemaking and peacekeeping, there may be contested spaces, Burden said, likening the land to a palimpsest, which is a page whose previous text was erased and written over though previous parts remain visible.  It is important to ask questions about space identity: whose stories get foregrounded and whose stories do not?  These types of questions are necessary “to get to a space of reflection,” said Burden.  “To then have something new emerge from that” which is necessary for racial justice and equity.

This idea is exemplified by a temporary monument located in front of the Tucson Museum of Art that reflected upon a neighborhood destroyed during urban renewal from the 1940s to the 1970s.  The piece, called “Liminal Space: (b)Light”, was a white stone wall with the names of families and businesses – over 400 in all – that were displaced from the area where the museum now stands. On its website, the museum also acknowledges that the institution was built upon the original territories of the O’odham, a First Nations tribe.

Art and creative placemaking can help the people in the community while honoring those who came before.

A Toolkit for Arts and Equity

Larger organizations are also working in concert with artists and policymakers to provide tools and structure for creating and imagining more equitable spaces.

One such organization is the Trust for Public Land, which seeks to “ensure that underinvested communities with structural barriers around access to high-quality public spaces have a fair and just opportunity” to reap the many benefits of nature and public parks, said Sadiya Muqueeth, DrPH.  Dr. Muqueeth, the Trust’s director of community health, shared information about the Trust for Public Land’s mission, results, and resources during a recent webinar on “Health, Arts, Parks, and Equity: A Toolkit for Practitioners” organized by the Center for Arts in Medicine at the University of Florida.

In pursuit of this goal, the Trust creates new parks, protects lands, and helps change schoolyards into green schoolyards that are available to the community at large.  Because time spent in nature has profound mental and physical health benefits, providing more access to these spaces can help alleviate these disparities.  Since 1972, the Trust has created over 5,000 new places, protecting more than 3 million acres of land, and allowing more than 8 million people to live within a 10-minute walk from these spaces.

True health equity means that “everyone has a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible,” said Geneva Vest, a project manager of community relations at the Trust and co-author of the Toolkit.  Achieving this “lofty goal” requires reversing racism, white supremacy, and systemic issues, she added. “It’s not just about getting people to exercise more.”

To help communities grapple with these issues, the Trust for Public Land developed a Health, Arts, Parks, and Equity Toolkit outlining the evidence-based principles and guidelines which centers “parks as spaces and the arts as the conduit” for community building, Vest said.

The Toolkit contains seven illustrative case studies from a range of contexts and geographies highlighting what is possible for community-led creative placemaking.

One study highlighted the NYC Center for Health Equity and Community Wellness (CHECW), which started work in neighborhoods with stark health inequities, particularly communities of predominantly black and brown residents, in 2014.  They sought to address the root causes of these health disparities, such as racism, redlining, and discriminations that perpetuated these inequities across generations by using space-based interventions in the built environment.

Working with local arts organizations, artists, and advocates, the CHECW created murals and art installations in underutilized space to enhance walkability, encourage physical activity, and increase safety and neighborhood cohesion.  Artists-in-residence were funded to engage communities to understand how racism and gender oppression leads to inequitable health outcomes.

As one official told Vest about the project, “We know one project won’t change everything, but we build capacity through engagement.”

Further reading on Creative Placemaking:

More articles from IAM Lab's research team available here.