The question “What is the role of public art in placemaking?” is slipperier than it looks. To ask it is not simply to invite ideas about how to make the cityscape prettier; it is to grapple with the definitions, nuances, and implications of the question’s two big terms. Neither placemaking nor public art possesses a settled definition, as both are increasingly invoked, discussed, and argued about as city officials turn to creative people and creative industries to help revitalize urban and small-town neighborhoods.

The public aspect of public art has been, is, and will continue to be one of the most contentious conundrums in the discipline, as artists work out how to be both conscientious embodiers of public concerns—from neighborhood identity to global warming—and also creative art-makers with individual visions. And it looks like “placemaking” has emerged as the newest arena in which this conundrum is being worked out.

Attempting Definitions

We might start with a succinct definition of placemaking—if one existed. Fred and Ethan Kent, from the New York–based Project for Public Spaces (PPS), one of the leading placemaking consultancies, offer the following: “Placemaking is the art and science of developing public spaces such as parks, libraries, and public buildings that attract people, build community by bringing people together, and create local identity. It is the creation of a built environment that creates community, stimulates interaction, encourages entrepreneurship, fosters innovation, and nurtures humanity.”

This recipe, with its emphasis on creating spaces that interest and connect people, clearly leaves room for art, even if it doesn’t specify a role for it. But another current term, creative placemaking—coined by economist Ann Markusen—defines an urbanism that absolutely requires the presence of art and artists. In her influential National Endowment for the Arts white paper, “Creative Placemaking” (2007), Markusen emphasizes the economic benefits of placemaking and makes a documented case for fostering art and other creative disciplines as engines of growth. “Our research finds,” she writes, “that through creative placemaking, arts and culture make substantial contributions to local economic development, livability, and cultural industry competitiveness.”