Vermont Arts Council

On Placemaking and Public Art

I was invited recently to present with our partners from AARP VT at the national AARP Livable Communities Placemaking Workshop in Denver, Colorado. This was the organization’s first-ever national convening dedicated to highlighting and sharing best practices, insights, and inspiring next steps in placemaking. It was a gathering of AARP staff, community partners, and livability practitioners representing a range of specialties, locations, and perspectives.

Our presentation focused on placemaking in small towns. There has been some exciting work in Vermont lately, some through a collaborative partnership with the Arts Council, the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development, the Department of Health, the Agency of Transportation, the Department of Agriculture, and others. Our collective goal is to make Vermont communities more vibrant and livable.

What is Creative Placemaking?

Public art—sculptures, murals, and other arts experiences located in public places and open to all—can be a vital part of a creative placemaking project. When a work of public art is joined to a larger vision for creative placemaking to meet community goals and outcomes (such as safety, livability, walkability, health, and economic development), it engages local community members in dialogue, sparking discussion about the values, history, culture, and direction of their community. It has potential to connect people more deeply to each other, and to the places where they live.

My favorite explanation of the process is in a white paper by Anne Gadwa Nicodemus and Ann Markusen completed for the Mayors’ Institute on City Design. “In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire and be inspired.”

I was inspired throughout the AARP workshop to see that people from towns and cities all across the country spoke of the value of integrating the arts into their placemaking efforts and the prominent role the arts can play in helping communities realize their vision. There were panels focusing on equity, inclusion, and accessibility in placemaking; the economic, health, and social impacts of placemaking; and the multiple opportunities for community engagement that placemaking can provide.

Think Big, Start Small

There are many sources of place-based opportunities. Take a look around you! For example, review the language in your local town plan or in a local health needs assessments and ask yourself “How can the arts and creativity play a role in meeting these objectives?” As local residents, public officials, and private business owners undertake the transformation of public spaces, neighborhoods, downtowns, and villages through placemaking they must be sure to think big but start small. Begin work at a scale and pace that is right for the leadership and capacity in your community.

Often it’s the simple, temporary do-it-yourself (DIY) projects that don’t overwhelm, and can spark community energy and enthusiasm in a non-threatening way. The folks at AARP VT in partnership with Community Workshop have developed a great DIY Community Cookbook. Here are some other national resources that provide lots of great ideas and inspiration:

Keep at it, and Have Fun!

This short film showcases a few projects funded by the Vermont Arts Council’s Animating Infrastructure Grant program.

Often, successful revitalization efforts include strategies for building on the momentum of initial temporary “pop-up” projects. Just remember, as you develop plans and build budgets to make our downtowns, neighborhoods, and public spaces more engaging and inviting: Provide appropriate compensation and support to local artists, and include public input and participation from the broadest range of abilities, cultures, genders, ages, and organizations in your community.

I’m so proud of the creative endeavors in Vermont communities, large and small. The excitement and vibrancy bubbling up all over makes this state a great place to live, work, and visit. Let’s continue to integrate the arts into all our local revitalization!

Michele Bailey
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