Creative placemaking has been an outcome of public art projects for years, and the term has recently become an engaging catchphrase for decision makers and developers around the United States. It is encouraging that the arts have become an accepted aspect of developing a place, but the current focus on placemaking also raises important questions: Does the practice of placemaking, with its focus on the product of an artwork, capture the true spirit of creativity and art-making? Can it truly engage the artist’s mind in the process of developing a place?

These questions spun a common thread at the 2014 Transatlantic Symposium: The Role of Artists & the Arts in Urban Resilience, held in Baltimore in May. The symposium gathered creative and intellectual minds from North America and Europe to consider how art and artists play a role in building and designing the urban landscape.

Many of these thinkers posited the notion that placemaking has become a product-driven practice designed to achieve specific goals within rigid boundaries—in contrast to the organic ebb and flow of the built environment, as people reshape their surroundings in response to relocation and cultural shifts. Placemaking efforts tend to take history into account, and also to consider the needs of current and near-future communities. What these developments lack, however, is a focus on maintaining the histories of a place and the long view of natural
human resettlement.

The newly developed Monroe Street Market in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, D.C., serves as one example. Projects like this one are designed to re-create the feel of an old-world, café-friendly streetscape with European-like brick buildings and narrow streets. Such redevelopments attempt to create a place for a community to gather, and also, in most instances, to drive revenue. But do these engineered locations responsibly remember the past and appropriately accommodate the needs of future generations? Or do they merely serve the immediate short-term—and fashionable—directives to make creative spaces that build creative economies?

When I was managing public art collections, it became clear that there is more excitement, planning, and community engagement in the development of the artwork than in the life of the work after the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The creative placemaking fad faces a similar dilemma. The notion of developing a place that incorporates the art crowd is something to be celebrated, at least on some level. (I drafted parts of this article in a café in one such development in Silver Spring, Maryland.) But Americans have a terrible habit of getting excited about the new without planning for maintenance and sustainability—of creating something great and then walking away. This pattern must be addressed.

One solution is to fully integrate artists in the creative placemaking process. As artist Barbara Holub pointed out at the Transatlantic Symposium, artists maintain an independent role because of their ability to question and reflect upon artistic processes, while their understanding of societal and spatial development makes them ready-made experts in the planning field.

There are many examples of artists integrated in master-planning processes. It is difficult, however, to find long-term successes in a process-oriented and sustainability-focused design project. Perhaps it is simply too early to see such results: Public art has been included in master-planning processes since at least the 1990s, but including artists in the placemaking process itself is still relatively new.

Most master plans treat public art as an addendum—adornment to make an area look nice—leaving the artist, and by proxy the art, as “other” to be inserted later. The field has made progress toward integrating artists more deeply into the placemaking process: The San Jose International Airport Art & Technology program and Buffalo Bayou Park in Houston are two examples of these successes. The next stage is to hire artists into the design and planning firms, where they (and, as collaborators, art administrators) sit at the table with the engineers, designers, and decision makers to solve the challenges of creating a sustainable placemaking process.

Artists have the skill and knowledge to ensure that developed places allow communities to engage with each other and dream about the future. Proof of this skill comes from artists like Theaster Gates and the LA Commons and Rosten Woo. Gates’s Dorchester Projects is a prime example of an artist’s understanding of a community. The project turns formerly abandoned structures into community-oriented spaces and has spawned a nonprofit organization to continue this work. LA Commons and Rosten Woo’s Project Willowbrook (pictured, one of 37 chosen for the 2014 PAN Year in Review) not only explores and celebrates existing community assets in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Willowbrook, it also pioneers new methods for community outreach in civic planning processes (learn more in Project Willowbrook, part of our four-part Artography series on mapping in public art).

Projects like these show that by engaging artists early and focusing on a creative placemaking process, planners can harness a creativity that will make a place unique. The artist—not the artwork—can rethink problems and scenarios to develop a creative place that responds to immediate needs and allows space for the generations to come.