Vermont Arts Council

Building It Better

Leo Vazquez is a leader in creative placemaking and cultural competency — two currently hot fields in urban planning. He has decades of experience in community development and community engagement. He facilitates small groups, fosters local economic development, develops leadership, and publishes strategic communications. He’s the winner of national awards and has written for professional and general-interest publications. A bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University and advanced degrees in planning from the University of Southern California have enabled him to navigate shifting personal priorities throughout his career. When asked what inspires him right now, his answer is quick and direct:

“It’s the same as it’s always been …

enhancing quality of life in communities for as many people as possible.”

Leo started his career as a journalist. A concern that he was “not doing enough by writing” led him to get involved in planning and public administration. He studied. Then, “Since getting those degrees, I’ve called myself a planner, because my focus has always been on place.” In 2012 he co-founded the National Consortium for Creative Placemaking, where he is the director.

Creative placemaking is emerging, as is its language. Leo offers two descriptions. The longer is: “A set of collaborative, inclusive, and risk-tolerant approaches to enhancing communities through arts and culture.” His shorter description: “It’s about making communities better through arts and local cultural activities.”

Leo has worked on placemaking for downtowns, housing developments, and parks. Scale doesn’t matter. Always, “it’s up to the community involved to determine what the place is and what could be better.” Usually, this means “safer, more fun — an environment that helps the kids develop as fuller human beings with better opportunities. It could mean greater freedom. It’s about creating a place that values them based on who they are.” Leo’s reference to “them” means “People who might feel they are second-class citizens. Artists, famously.” He continues to build the list. “Immigrants, teenagers, people who feel they’re not really welcome downtown.” Creative placemaking brings a sense of belonging.

You’ll Need Art

Leo’s approach stresses results; he differentiates himself this way. “A lot of planners talk about things that take a lot of time and take a huge amount of money.” What’s his secret weapon for moving projects forward? Art. He’s certain “the arts and cultural activities are valuable vehicles for enhancing quality of life and economic development. He admits to being skeptical early in his career. “I saw the arts as mostly decorative — fun, but not serious. But I learned about the incredible power of arts on individual communities and societies and saw (how) that power can be leveraged to enhance the goals.”

There can be roadblocks. “The hardest part of collaborative work is getting people to collaborate. It’s easier to work by yourself or to work with others whose ideas are similar to yours. But you have to be vulnerable, you have to develop a sense of trust.” He recognizes there are tensions and fear — especially as communities become more diverse — and is frank in positing that “people who are smart are also very good at rationalizing their fears. Getting past that will take time. You can’t expect difficult conversations to happen in one meeting.”

Art can break down barriers when the challenge is “ … being more creative in how we approach issues.” The work won’t be done in typical meeting fashion. “We may engage in artistic activities — storytelling. We might ask people to take pictures, or draw, maybe have fun together. If we can have fun, work on something together, trust each other a little bit more; then we can feel comfortable taking risks.”

Leo names artists as risk takers. “It’s very hard to make a livable wage. It’s easy to express yourself, but difficult to express in ways that show a high level of technical skill.” He also sees a “willingness to commit without knowing what’s going to happen at the end.” He describes an artist’s value as “somebody who can see what’s not there and can work to make it happen.”

In placemaking, this perspective is valuable. As Leo points out, “The easiest thing in the world is to assume whatever is there will always be there and is supposed to be there. It’s easier to ask ‘why’ than ‘why not.’”

We’re Not All the Same

Vermont is small, rural, and arts-rich. But Leo wouldn’t offer a case study to fit those criteria. He explained: “Creative placemaking is not about doing one type of thing for one kind of goal. It’s thinking holistically about a place … There are hundreds of thousands of great examples to draw from. Every place is unique.”

He wrapped up the conversation with this metaphor: It’s like trying on clothes; there’s no one size fits all — unless you’re wearing a muumuu.” An afterthought: “But not too many people look good wearing a muumuu.” He then added this line of thinking had given him a great idea to include in his address at the Convening. No one is expecting that he’ll wear a muumuu, but hearing more about his work is certainly something to look forward to.

Leo Vazquez will talk about artists and creative placemaking at the October 18 Convening of the Creative Network; you are welcome to attend at no cost. Find out more and RSVP here.

—  Susan McDowell

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