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Home is Where the Art Is: How Public Placemaking Impacts Neighborhoods

Before and After of a Blighted Building on Plank Road made into a Placemaking piece at MLK Fest 2020

Over time, neighborhoods are bound to change. Populations and amenities migrate in and out with popularity and the winds of change. Yet, what loses attention quickly is those original neighborhoods, the ones that as residents move out of, slowly become disinvested in. It happens almost like a chain reaction. Maybe it starts with new businesses opting out of opening there, often claiming barriers in zoning or perceived purchasing power the residents hold. Families are then encouraged to move out further and further, where new neighborhoods are being established with attractive amenities like fast internet speeds, gorgeously designed and stocked grocery stores, and newly built homes. Leaving only the steadfast residents to maintain the neighborhood. When residents move out, blight moves in.

This cycle isn’t necessarily organic. There is a traceable series of actions within our history that may shed light on why this happens so often anywhere in the United States. To begin, the most defining systemic process that locked in these “areas of concentrated poverty” was “Redlining." Literally with red ink, creating boundaries for real estate development and lending institutions to veer away from. This practice locked in many areas until the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which in reality, means the current vision of housing access is only a few generations old.

From this backsliding starting line post-WWII, neighborhoods with a majority of black and brown residents were faced with a steep climb to stay relevant to the housing market trends. Since so much infrastructure and even schools are tied to property taxes, once the residents started to move out, everything became positioned for disinvestment.

So, how does something like this become repositioned into an avenue for success without incurring colonization? The loss of neighborhood culture and history becomes an unacknowledged centerpiece of the many risks gentrification brings. Art, more often than not, is the last thing residents think about when considering how to maintain culture in a community. But when utilized with community input and representation, art can create a placemaking atmosphere, a productive and authentic way to upgrade an area. Placemaking, especially through public art, is a way of connecting neighborhoods, relieving blight, and reducing crime (yes, really!).

First, let’s consider how to go about placemaking development. Community culture and representation must be at the center and out front, because further means of visual displacement, or creating a culture of “not-belonging” can lead to some considerable negative ramifications.

It becomes critical to design for not just the people who developers want to see there, but first the families who currently reside there. Manohar Patole, NYU professor and Community Resilience specialist provides some context from cited sources,

Traditional urban planning, also known as top-down planning, has been criticized for a number of issues, including:

Traditional urban planning, also known as top-down planning, has been criticized for a number of issues, including: Lack of community involvement: Traditional urban planning often fails to engage and involve community members in the planning process. According to a report by the American Planning Association (APA), ‘traditional planning processes have been criticized for being too bureaucratic, with little or no citizen participation.’

IIn order to create a space that is calibrated for prosperity, it must feel inclusionary and optimistic. Yet, the traditional method of going about urban planning investment can be extremely wasteful, Patole notes the following:

Ineffective use of resources: Traditional urban planning has been criticized for being inefficient and wasting resources. A report by the Centre for Sustainable Urban and Regional Futures states that ‘traditional urban planning approaches have been criticized for being slow, costly and ineffective in delivering the desired outcomes.’

When planning placemaking, as well with any community reinvestment, the inclusion of all residents is critical. However, plans are easier than actions and quickly become shelf-art. Investment in practitioners and coalitions reflective of these plans is a step toward creating a movement, rather than a moment. Opportunities like the future OneRouge Housing Coalition help to create a pathway of structure and action that helps facilitate beyond the planning stage.

Understanding how great community placemaking can be achieved, the question arises as to how truly effective is it? Or more interestingly, how can something like neighborhood placemaking reduce crime? During her studies with MAUP, LSU Professor Dr. Tracey Rizzuto reviewed crime data in areas near and around murals, comparing it to areas that did not receive placemaking revitalization. By reviewing before and after “calls for service for violent

crime,” Dr. Rizzuto and Matthew A. Valasik developed a theory that once placemaking happens, especially in the form of art, crime is reduced in some way,

“In summary, the descriptive and multivariate results presented in the study suggest the efforts of The Walls Project were associated with declines in calls for service for violent crime in more disadvantaged areas of Baton Rouge. Descriptive results show that calls for service declined within 500 feet of mural installations, but also that the decline was not statistically significant. Results of the multivariate analyses indicated calls for service were significantly more likely to decline in block groups where murals were installed.”

The reasons for this can be tracked and coded, but some of the possibilities for why this result can occur are hard to unquestionably answer, like the result of, “...mural installations may have produced increased guardianship as the artists and community members spent time in the area during the installation.”

Reduction in crime is significant enough to consider placemaking as a part of community revitalization and battle against blight, partnered with supporting the community culture of past, present, and future through effective engagement, but what else can be accomplished when we approach blighted neighborhoods with arts-based placemaking?

Blight isn’t always a few broken windows and tall grass, it comes in many shapes and forms, and most notably difficult to navigate, rules and regulations associated with property ownership. Oftentimes local residents are willing to help with the blight but cannot obtain the proper permissions to take ownership of the land they are about to clear. “Mow-to-own” programs are a step in the right direction, but it still has caveats and requires title clearance. Utilizing art can create a short-term bypass to those issues, but creating semi-permanent installations by boarding up windows with painted signs, or creating removable art installations.

Additionally, placemaking and public art create an opportunity for volunteers and residents to band together to make improvements to the area. Successes, like MLK Fest (now MLK Holiday BR) offer an opportunity to make massive efforts in neighborhood blight remediation and revitalization.

Banding together for progress isn't a new concept, but it allows for a bottom-up approach toward urban transformations. Something that new urban development has so importantly placed importance on. So, in summation, a little paint and creativity can go a long way to helping create a better city.

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