Vermont Arts Council

What Placemakers Say

Creative placemaking is a growing part of Vermont’s landscape and language. The term, well-defined by Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa in this white paper, refers to projects where “partners from public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities.” Creative placemaking emphasizes strategic action by cross-sector partners, a place-based orientation, and a core of arts and cultural activities.

Animating Infrastructure Grants from the Arts Council support this work, recently in towns including Bethel, Brattleboro, and Waterbury. Funding, however, is only a part of the picture. Three practiced placemakers—Karen Nevin, executive director of Revitalizing Waterbury; Stephanie Bonin, executive director of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, and Rebecca Sanborn Stone, principal at Community Workshop, LLC—were asked to reveal more about the imaginative, collaborative, commitment-driven process they champion.

It’s the Energy

For Stephanie, it’s exciting to be “reimaging and cultivating our community to be able to be fresh and innovative.” For Karen, art is the magic ingredient. “As a former Arts administrator, I saw the potential of creative placemaking during special art-centric events.” Artists bring a certain energy. “Once I moved to a community development organization I could tell that mixing creative activities into the life of the community created something special.” Rebecca sees that “So many communities are looking for ways to build energy and common ground, to engage people in new ways, and to create quick, inexpensive physical improvements . . . even small creative placemaking projects can do all of those things.

Look for Partners

Karen points out that creative placemaking happens in parks, on sidewalks, and inside office buildings. So, “There are no obvious partners, and it’s important that placemaking is inclusive and not exclusive.” She adds “Partners come from all walks of life. Though artists, creative makers, craftsmen, musicians, and performers are obvious, so are store and restaurant owners.” Rebecca notes that “Obvious partners would be people who own property you want to work on, who must give permission, or who have resources you need. Not-so-obvious partners include people or groups who would benefit from having stronger places—and that’s usually just about anyone.” But the most important partners, she emphasizes, are “any people or groups who are excited about creative placemaking.”

And consider Stephanie’s idea that “an art installation is not the end result; it is a means. It might be the means of bringing life to a dark alley. So the artist and electrician must be at the table.” In all projects “You need to build a project team that represents many stakeholders. You need the partners that have the skills needed to make it happen so that it is the experts guiding the process. Successful and ease-filled projects come from working on the creation piece together with all the decision makers and users.”

Speaking of Success

Karen holds Waterbury’s Rusty Parker Memorial Park as an example. “The park is full of creative content, but it also a place where people are welcome for lunch, to read, to play.” She offers that “A placemaking project is a success when it has fully integrated into the community as a place to be. Instead of being ‘a creative place’ it becomes ‘the place to meet, see, hear, share, grow.’ People are naturally drawn to the place.” Stephanie’s thinking echoes that. “If it is a pop-up placemaking activity, success means that people now want it to be permanent. If it was a permanent project, success means that the spot moved from a space to a place and is now integrated into what makes our community wonderful.”

A summer afternoon at Rusty Parker Memorial Park.

Rebecca declares all projects a success if they are designed and intended to have broad impacts and to be experimental. “They might not do everything they were intended to do, but most will do something—improving aesthetics, bringing people together, creating new partnerships, sparking conversation.” Her “just get started” spirit shines when she advises “Many places are afraid of failure, and placemaking projects may fail according to some traditional definitions: you might have a project that doesn’t last, or is unpopular. But if experimentation is a goal and you learn something from that project, then it will by definition be a success.”

What You’ll Need

There’s no way a creative placemaking project is going to fly without:

  • a willingness to listen, hear, agree, agree to disagree, smile, laugh, dream and ignore limitations. It may be trite, but if you can dream it, they will come (Karen)
  • imagination and a yes attitude (Stephanie)
  • a creative mindset. That goes for the people planning and creating placemaking projects—you need to be creative about where to find resources, whom to involve, and how to design around challenges. It also goes for the place hosting placemaking projects—our towns and communities need to be open to experimentation and letting people color outside the lines (Rebecca)

How Many Vermonters Does it Take . . .

to revitalize a downtown?

  • Just one to start! If that person does something creative, fun and engaging, the rest will join in (Rebecca)
  • Everyone in the community which is why it is so challenging. Yes, one person can make an impact but change occurs when a vast number in our communities own it. When they feel, connect, and live in the project (Stephanie)
  • Everyone and then some. A town cannot be revitalized without residents who trust and believe in their community and are committed to spending their time, energy and money there. It cannot be revitalized without business owners, local or not, who trust and believe in their business and are committed to keep trying. And they must trust and believe in the community that will spend their time, energy and money. It cannot be revitalized without the town government being willing to encourage the small step changes that need to be made to welcome those businesses and residents (Karen)

Go Forth!

Remember Rebecca’s “just get started” spirit? Use it. She encourages “Start by asking what people wish for their community. Then just start. Pick something really, really small off that list and go do it. Pick something fun, temporary, and cheap. Find out what people think about it—what they like or what they wish was different, and then go do that. Keep asking, keep doing, keep changing.”

—This toolkit from Jackson Hole, Wyoming (Places of Possibility) focuses on local/rural community, incorporates public art, and gives some concrete steps for action.

Susan McDowell

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