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October 5, 2018

The Business Case for Creative Placemaking

Urban Land Institute (ULI) – By Juanita Hardy
October 5, 2018

Miami Beach has branded itself as an art city. It is also at the forefront of municipalities coping with the need to improve their resilience in the face of rising sea-water and severe storms. But must dealing with such critical needs detract from the city’s celebrated artistic flair? That is a question many communities across the country are wrestling with as they seek to improve their quality of life and compete for new residents and businesses.
Miami Beach, for example, has many historic districts, including its famed Art Deco District, which has the largest collection of art deco buildings in the United States. The city annually hosts Art Basel, a global art fair that pumps an estimated $500 million into the local economy during the first week of December.
In addition to being an art city, Miami Beach has the opportunity to brand itself as a resilient city. Miami Beach spends millions of dollars annually on stormwater management using an outdated, underperforming stormwater gravity system. Now, it is in the process of replacing that with an ecologically sophisticated pump system estimated to cost over $400 million.

While in Miami Beach during April preparing for a ULI Advisory Services panel reviewing the city’s stormwater management and climate adaptation plan, I saw a monstrous generator—nearly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, located adjacent to a sidewalk and easily viewed by passersby—designed to pump water from flooded neighborhoods.

What if such utilitarian infrastructure were designed with an artist’s help? And why should that not be standard practice? Such sensitivity to aesthetics could help address concerns expressed by Miami Beach residents about maintaining their cultural identity and quality of life as generators and pumps are being installed in their neighborhoods.

Just six weeks earlier, I had served on an Advisory Services panel addressing concerns about a food desert in Montbello, a culturally diverse, low- to middle-income neighborhood in Denver with more than 34,000 residents. Community leaders are planning an art and cultural hub anchored by a local fresh food market and connected via pedestrian and bicycle paths to the neighborhood’s plethora of parks and urban gardens. This art and cultural hub is a highly visible project supported by the Kresge Foundation’s FreshLo initiative and the Colorado Health Foundation.

Creative placemaking, a strategy that integrates art and cultural interventions throughout the development process, beginning at the pre-construction and design phase, was central to the recommendations proposed by the advisory panels for both Miami Beach and Montbello. A review of these two panels, ULI technical assistance panels, and other member-engaged initiatives in recent years reveals examples of how different strategies for creative placemaking can add value across many components of the built environment, enhancing stakeholder benefits and promoting healthy communities.

Activate Houston Street, San Antonio
Houston Street in San Antonio has long been overshadowed by the River Walk—the place to go for food, scenic strolls, art, and entertainment. But things are changing on Houston Street. This part of San Antonio’s historic downtown Center City is under-going a transformation representing over $1 billion of development.

The Activate Houston Street campaign—launched by Centro San Antonio, a 501(c)(3) community development corporation with the mission “to mobilize people and resources to build a more prosperous downtown”—was charged with creating a placemaking action plan for the Houston Street corridor. Activate Houston Street is supported by the development community, including ULI members, who have active or planned development projects along Houston Street and in the Center City. San Antonio’s Center City Development & Operations Department (CCDO) is an implementation partner and champion of the campaign.

The effort focuses on six blocks of Houston Street, beginning at the historic Alamo on the east and extending west to San Saba Street. Centro has defined four discrete districts along this stretch—the Alamo, Performing Arts, Innovation, and Zona Cultural—each with distinct features and character. Surrounding development includes a world-class urban park on the 40-acre (16 ha) Hemisfair site, where the 1968 World’s Fair was held; mixed-use development designed to lure suburbanites to downtown residential living; and improvements to the San Pedro Creek, abutting Houston Street, including creation of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park, a linear park modeled after the River Walk.

In January, Centro spearheaded a charrette for San Antonio residents to imagine the possibilities for Houston Street. ULI was an event sponsor and I was invited to give opening remarks about my observations, having toured Houston Street and several sites, including the Pearl mixed-use development, formerly the Pearl Brewery, and the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Both developments received a ULI Global Award for Excellence. Local chapters of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) produced a summary report, and among the top ten ideas identified in the summary, six were creative placemaking interventions.

These ideas include activating storefronts with creative pop-ups (temporary sites ranging from displays and exhibitions to cafés and artisan shops); developing clear and compelling wayfinding; establishing a performing arts district; introducing light, shade, and art into the streetscape; and improving connections to the River Walk and San Pedro Creek Culture Park while enhancing the visibility of cultural assets on Houston Street and activating alleys and crosswalks. Preparation for the charrette was guided by a 2017 study conducted by the International Downtown Association (IDA), which outlined proposed actions to activate Houston that reflect the needs of properties and adjacent neighborhoods. The renaissance of Houston Street and the surrounding area represents a large economic opportunity for San Antonians.

Already, the San Antonio River Improvements Project has resulted in a $384 million investment through a partnership that includes the city, Bexar County (of which San Antonio is the county seat), the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the San Antonio River Foundation. Improvements, completed in 2013, included flood control, ecosystem restoration, recreational upgrades, and public art. A $71 million investment in one of the river improvement projects completed in 2009 was found to have delivered an annual economic impact of $139 million, according to a 2014 study conducted by Steve Niven and sponsored by the city, SARA, and the Paseo del Rio Association.

Each of the four districts along Houston Street has major development projects planned or underway. In the Zona Cultural district, for example, the city, in partnership with the county, Texas Public Radio, and La Familia Cortez, plan to restore the historic Alameda Theater to its former glory. Completed in 1949 as a Mexican American entertainment venue, it was the largest venue of its kind dedicated to Spanish-language films and performing arts. Major artists from the United States, Spain, Mexico, and other Latin American countries performed there. The theater will be transformed into a multimedia live performing arts and film center featuring the American/Latino multicultural story.

Nearby, the San Pedro Culture Park, a project primarily funded by Bexar County and managed by SARA, is transforming a downtown drainage ditch into a linear park and providing a recreational public space designed as a flood-control project able to contain 100-year-level floods anticipated for downtown San Antonio. One phase is scheduled for completion in 2020, and design for a future phase is underway. According to park leadership, once fully completed, the San Pedro Creek Culture Park is expected to spur an economic impact totaling $1.5 billion.
Historic sites such as the Alamo—designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization—and Casa Navarro, the home of José Antonio Navarro, one of two native-born signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence, are being or have been preserved and improved. The Alamo, for example, in addition to repair, restoration, and conservation activities, will get a new museum that features an expansive exhibit on the Texas Revolution. Casa Navarro underwent a $1 million restoration project in 2012 and in 2017 was named a National Historic Landmark.

Centro took the right approach, deploying a best practice: engaging the community early through the charrette to let residents help shape—and be a part of—the exciting change happening there.

North Carolina Triangle Creative Placemaking Transit Workshop
The three main counties comprising the North Carolina Research Triangle region—Wake, Durham, and Orange—are embarking on initiatives to upgrade their transit systems. Each county has unique projects in different stages of rollout.

Wake County, for example, will implement bus rapid transit, improved bus service, and commuter rail; Durham and Orange counties are in the design phase for a light-rail system. Residents in each of the counties agreed to tax themselves to pay for these infrastructure enhancements. The Wake County transit plan alone represents a $2.3 billion investment over the first ten years of implementation.

What if the three transit organizations collaborated to explore how creative placemaking could be integrated into their transit processes, improve the overall transit experience, and enhance bottom-line benefits of the transit enhancements for all stakeholders? This topic was explored in August 2017 at a three-day creative placemaking workshop, an event supported by the Kresge Foundation, which provided two years of funding for ULI’s Building Healthy Places Creative Placemaking project. The workshop was attended by ULI members and experts in transit-oriented development, community engagement, design, and creative placemaking.

Workshop participants said integration of creative placemaking throughout the transit design and planning process likely would offer many advantages. All three counties are trying to enhance their transit systems to cope with exponential population growth. The need to balance ridership, promote economic development, and enhance transit access and walkability, especially in historically underserved areas, is a key challenge.

Creative placemaking at and between transit stops could lower barriers to using transit by making the experience more attractive, authentic, and culturally relevant, workshop participants said. It also could help address equity issues by, for example, establishing uniform standards applicable to all stations, including those in neighborhoods that had been underserved by bus transit.
Participants developed recommendations for four existing or future station sites: a light-rail station at Buchanan Boulevard in Durham, a bus rapid transit station at Martin Luther King Jr.

Boulevard and Hillsborough Street in Chapel Hill, a bus rapid transit station at South Wilmington Street in Garner, and the new multimodal Union Station in downtown Raleigh, the state capital. These sites should serve as prototypes for region wide enhancements, workshop panelists said. They identified the strengths and shortcomings of each site and developed site-specific recommendations aimed at enhancing transit access, aesthetics, safety, physical health, community connectedness and well-being, and economic development, among other priorities.
At the proposed Buchanan Boulevard station, for instance, panelists recommended transforming a historic but blighted warehouse slated for demolition so it could serve as a community gathering place with local retail businesses that would attract visitors and promote economic activity. They also proposed the preservation of an existing mural of Pauli Murray (1910–1985), an African American civil rights activist, women’s rights activist, lawyer, Episcopal priest, and author beloved by the neighborhood. Panelists recommended adding pedestrian and bike paths, way-finding signs that would inform people about the neighborhood’s culture and history, and murals below the nearby Buchanan underpass, enhancing the aesthetics of the surrounding area.

Recommendations at the other three sites included ways to preserve and enhance cultural assets, promote safety at station stops with high rates of pedestrian accidents, and avoid displacement of residents and businesses amid gentrification and the rising expenses precipitated by transit-oriented development. The breadth and depth of recommendations demonstrated how creative placemaking principles and strategies could add tremendous value and increase the returns on this over–$2 billion investment, to be paid through the resident-supported transit tax.

Library Square in Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, speaking at a mayor’s roundtable hosted by the Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use at ULI’s 2018 Spring Meeting in Detroit, said she wants her home to be known as an art and cultural city.

Salt Lake City has many artistic, cultural, and natural jewels. These include Library Square, situated in the middle of the Civic Center, with Washington Square and its municipal and county buildings to the west and the public safety building to the east. Library Square takes its name from the main branch building of the city’s public library system, a dramatic structure opened in 2003 and designed by Canadian architect Moshe Safdie with curved lines, glass walls, and floor-to-ceiling views of the square. Also, on the square is the Leonardo, a museum that connects Leonardo da Vinci’s fields of science, technology, and art to the public through its extensive artifacts and innovative exhibitions and programs.

The square serves as a large public plaza where the city’s largest summer festivals are held. Along one side of the plaza are smartly designed stalls that can accommodate small food and retail vendors. Replete with cobblestones and fountains, the plaza is surrounded by green space, all appealing to the contemplative and playful aspects of visitors. It is perfect in every sense, except for one shortcoming: excluding the festivals, at any given time of day or season it is nearly devoid of people.In June 2017, ULI Utah assembled a technical assistance panel made up of planning, design, creative placemaking, and development professionals to identify the challenges and opportunities presented by the plaza and come up with remedies that could help make it a more vibrant, thriving place that would attract residents and visitors and breathe more economic life into the area.

Panelists identified several factors contributing to the underuse of the plaza, including insufficient attention to weather protection, seating, program activation, campus maintenance, transit access, and connectedness between the library and the museum. Strategies were suggested to address these shortfalls and make Library Square a cultural hub of the city—not only providing better connections between the library and the Leonardo, but also attracting other arts and cultural organizations, such as the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art and the Utah Film Center, both of which are seeking new homes.

The panel recommended that the city hire an events manager responsible for ongoing programming and activation of the plaza, such as a seasonal farmers market, art fairs, film presentations, and musical performances. Library Square has “some good bones,” panelists noted, and said the proposed architectural, transit infrastructure, and creative placemaking interventions could make it a more joyful place and an art and cultural center that could contribute to the economic vibrancy of the city.

Placemaking: Component and Strategy
These examples demonstrate how art and culture interventions—components of creative placemaking—can add value to many aspects of the built environment, including transportation systems, parks and public spaces, environmental and stormwater management systems, and food preparation sites and places offering access to healthy food. Creative placemaking is both a component of a healthy, resilient, equitable, thriving community and a strategy to help create one.

Research shows that creative placemaking provides triple-bottom-line benefits—social, environmental, and financial—for all stakeholders. Anecdotally, it can be seen that communities enjoy enhanced health, well-being, and economic outcomes, and that local governments see gains in tax revenues that allow them to enhance resident services, as well as employment growth and improved public safety. Developers and their partners have reported higher market values, lower turnover rates, faster lease-ups, increased community buy-in, faster approval cycles, and enhanced branding and market recognition.

In a July 12, 2018, Washington Post article about the growing presence of art in real estate projects, Brian Coulter, chief development officer for JBG Smith in Chevy Chase, Maryland, expressed the company’s deep commitment to creativity, which is often manifested as murals, sculptures, and creative spaces that differentiate the company’s buildings and surrounding neighborhoods from others. “If we do it right, the art fires all our cylinders: people want to pay to live in our buildings,” Coulter said. “It’s good for our investors, and our company is successful.”
It makes good business sense to integrate creative placemaking with other development best practices from the start of—and throughout—the project life cycle.