Five Steps toward Implementing Creative Placemaking

Juanita Hardy – Urban Land Institute

Incorporating creative placemaking as a core strategy in real estate development projects is gaining momentum in the United States and around the globe. Creative placemaking—combining art and culture in tandem with good design—has proved to be an accelerator, not only in creating a unique sense of place that attracts people, but also in fostering healthy, culturally rich, and economically thriving places to live, work, and play. This is especially significant in vulnerable neighborhoods around commercial corridors, struggling rural areas, and other disinvested communities.

Urban Atlantic, a Washington, D.C.–based real estate development company, along with Hines and D.C.-based Triden Development Group, which partnered to form the Urban Atlantic-Hines-Triden development team, used creative placemaking as a core strategy in their bid to redevelop 66 acres (27 ha) at the historic Walter Reed Hospital complex in the District of Columbia. The development team’s creative placemaking approach contributed to its award by the District government to redevelop the site into a $300 million mixed-use complex named the Parks at Walter Reed.

Plans for “the Parks” include an art campus at its southern end with an arts incubator for local nonprofit arts organizations, artist live/work studios, public spaces for performances, and a farmers and art market. Throughout the sprawling retail and mixed-housing complex, plans envision nature walking and bike paths, and wayfinding signs that inform visitors about the rich history of a site that served as the U.S. Army’s premier medical facility for more than a century.

Plans also call for thoughtfully placed public art. The surrounding neighborhood, which was a target for the development team’s comprehensive community engagement effort, welcomes the Parks, at least in part because it will bring desired amenities to a neighborhood that has lacked sufficient food and retail establishments.

The development team has taken the first critical step in implementing creative placemaking. The following are the five steps that are key to implementing creative placemaking well and delivering high stakeholder value:

Step 1: Determine the role of creative placemaking in realizing the project’s vision. The Urban Atlantic-Hines-Triden development team did its homework. It looked at “place” in the larger context—defined not only as the historic Walter Reed site, but including adjoining neighborhoods. The team explored how creative placemaking could be used to instill a sense of place and honor the site’s historical significance while also listening and responding to the needs of the surrounding car-dominated community. At the south end of the campus, a local artist will transform a towering smokestack into public art that will serve as an icon for the campus. Nearby residents will be able to walk to the Parks for fresh food at the farmers market, attend performances on the lawn, and learn about Walter Reed’s history from signposts placed along footpaths.

Step 2: Form a team of “creatives.” The vision for Walter Reed came about through a team of architects, designers, artists, creative placemaking experts, community engagement professionals, and others assembled by Urban Atlantic-Hines-Triden early in the proposal development process. CulturalDC and Art-o-Matic—nonprofit art organizations on the proposal team—engaged more than 20 nonprofit arts organizations that submitted letters of interest affirming that if Walter Reed’s redevelopment were to include an arts incubator, they would sign up. The development team attended many community meetings through neighborhood councils and other local groups to gain local input that helped shape its approach.

Bringing artists and other creatives together with designers early in the project is a critical success factor—as is early engagement with the community. For example, ULI Idaho—one of four demonstration corridors that are part of ULI’s Building Healthy Places Initiative—received a creative placemaking grant from ULI to activate a portion of a congested commercial corridor, Vista Avenue, which stretches from downtown Boise to the airport. Aided by artists and art advocates, the district council held a community engagement event to solicit residents’ ideas to activate two blocks of the corridor. This is intended to be the first of a series of activities designed to keep the community engaged. The results are expected to make the area more aesthetically pleasing, enhance community cohesion, and promote active lifestyles.

Step 3: Prepare and sell the business case. Creative placemaking grows value, and demonstrating the stakeholder benefits is the clearest proof of that. For example, the Bethlehem SteelStacks Art and Culture Complex—the transformed site of the century-old Bethlehem Steel Manufacturing plant—helped revitalize and heal the city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Residents who mourned the loss of the plant and the jobs it provided embraced the new complex with a sense of pride. SteelStacks attracts 900,000 visitors per year and delivers an economic benefit of $58.3 million annually. The project’s success gained the attention of the Bruner Foundation, which awarded it the 2017 Rudy Bruner Gold Award for Urban Excellence, accompanied by a $50,000 cash award. SteelStacks won a ULI Global Award for Excellence in 2015.

Creative placemaking can result in high payoffs, especially when people in need are uplifted along with others. Be prepared to discuss the benefits of creative placemaking in both qualitative and quantitative terms. Share stories and, when possible, data demonstrating placemaking’s value.

Step 4: Develop and implement the plan. The plan needs to incorporate actions to implement creative placemaking interventions, as well as actions to avoid unintended outcomes, such as displacement of existing residents and businesses and other social equity concerns. D.C.-area residential developers Abdo and Bozzuto built 27 affordable (below-market-rate) artist studios on the ground floors of two buildings that make up Monroe Street Market, a $250 million, mixed-use transit-oriented development project in the Brookland neighborhood of Northeast D.C. They made provision that the studios’ affordability would be in perpetuity, securing artists’ presence there and abolishing future concerns about their displacement.

In the northeast part of Denver, 303 Artway, a nine-mile (15 km) loop of paved trail paralleling light-rail and bus transit stops, is designed to connect neighborhoods. The project kicked off with a mural at the 40th and Colorado Station underneath Colorado Boulevard. Spearheading the mural project, Anthony Garcia, chief executive officer of Birdseed Collective, a local nonprofit arts organization committed to improving the community through art and deep connections to the community, spent weeks in planning and painting with a group of young artists. The mural interweaves African kente and Mexican sarape blanket patterns. Garcia hopes that this project will be a catalyst to better connect the traditionally African American northeast Park Hill neighborhood south of the station and the robust Latino population in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood to the north. Intricate planning of creative placemaking interventions, with a 360-degree view of stakeholder wants and needs, is key to success.

Step 5: Communicate and collaborate. The adage “communicate, communicate, communicate” holds true for creative placemaking. One can never overcommunicate. Communications efforts should parallel the entire life cycle of the project: during the initial project phase, as Urban Atlantic-Hines-Triden did for the Parks at Walter Reed; during project implementation; and onward. Consider the goals set for each project phase, such as raising awareness, gaining community buy-in, and engaging stakeholders. Focus on timing and frequency of communications, the various audiences that must be reached, key messages, and the communication channels that can be used.

For example, in D.C., the 11th Street Bridge Park—designed to connect the Anacostia community east of the Anacostia River to the neighborhoods of Capitol Hill and Navy Yard on the west side of the river—used creative placemaking as well as economic strategies (such as a homebuyers club and a community land trust) and is a model of what effective communications look like. Audiences are engaged and well informed of project goals, activities, and accomplishments.

One needs to remember that the communication needs to flow in both directions and in a collaborative fashion. The 11th Street Bridge Park project is also a great example of collaboration, especially with the local community. Scott Krantz, director of 11th Street Bridge Park, an initiative of the nonprofit called Building Bridges Across the River, who leads the initiative, and his team held more than 200 stakeholder meetings soliciting input on the park’s design before engaging a single architect. Effective communications and community engagement early in the process have helped grow support for the park and provide momentum toward achieving stakeholders’ vision and goals.

The aforementioned steps do not have to be implemented serially, but some steps logically occur before others. For example, start with defining the role of creative placemaking on the real estate development project. Business-case preparation should occur early in the project. Communication should be done in parallel with other steps, spanning the entire project life cycle. Commence collaboration early in the project and continue it throughout. Recognize that implementation is an iterative, not a static, process. Be prepared to adjust and fine-tune plans as the project proceeds.

Creative placemaking can be applied to all scales of development. Even small-scale real estate development projects can benefit from low-cost creative placemaking interventions that enhance uniqueness of place. These “pop-ups” can attract people and generate interest, ultimately leading to larger, long-term investments.

For example, Edens, a retail real estate developer, in its efforts to revitalize and redevelop the Union Market District in Northeast D.C., is starting with modest investments, building interest and momentum, and then expanding. Among the developer’s success stories is the Maurice Electric “incubator” space, which sits within a former electric and lighting supply warehouse that once housed the Maurice Electrical Supply Company. The building has been converted into creative office space—while retaining much of the original charm and character—and is attracting creative entrepreneurs and startups as office tenants.

The recently released “Art and Economic Prosperity Study V,” developed by Americans for the Arts in partnership with the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, nullifies the perception that an investment in art is a one-way street. According to the study, art creates 4.6 million jobs and has an overall national impact of $166.3 billion in spending annually. The study further reveals that 87 percent of Americans believe that arts and culture improve quality of life and 82 percent believe that art and culture are good for business.

Creative placemaking is an investment worth making. Professionals in the world of real estate and land use can have an impact in fostering unique, culturally rich, and economically thriving places while also enhancing their business and brand. Let’s get to work and remember the key steps to implement creative placemaking well.