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How Creative Placemaking Plays a Role in the Creative Economy

See how creative placemaking is gaining more momentum in places like Boyle Heights on this episode of "Artbound."
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In partnership with Otis College of Art and Design: Artbound explores the latest Otis Report on the Creative Economy with online articles and video segments culminating in a broadcast special airing on KCET.

When we think of good places to live, some pretty basic questions often come to mind. Is there quality affordable housing? Are there high performing schools? Adequate transportation? Is it safe? Is there access to good jobs and commercial amenities? Are there environmental concerns? Is there adequate open space? Is the quality of public services good? One doing the inquiring will find that these questions are pretty easily answered through real estate guides and documents from agencies like municipal planning departments, departments of housing, chambers of commerce and the like.

Other questions that critically impact our quality of life are more subtle and often answered less easily. Does a community have cultural vitality and character? Is it distinctive, special, or interesting? Is there evidence of a community's capacity to be expressive, tell its own story and control its own narrative? Is there evidence that people are civically engaged and care about their community; that they are proud of it and feel like they belong?

David Kippen in his shop Libros Schmibros.

Some urban planners, community developers, artists, policymakers and others concerned with quality of place, diversity and equity are increasingly concerned with these more subtle questions. Among these players the concept of "creative placemaking" -- the recognition of a community's artistic and cultural assets and the integration of those assets in community planning and revitalization -- is gaining momentum. In communities where creative placemaking is happening we see evidence of artists and culture bearers playing leadership roles, helping to create the narrative of a community through the modification of the built environment, the creation of song and music that captures the essence of a place and the people in it, the celebration of unique heritage-based traditions and customs and by helping regular residents become more expressive and civically engaged through creative action. In communities where creative placemaking is happening we also see evidence of artists, cultural bearers and arts and cultural organizations working in concert with community development, social service organizations and other entities working for community improvement. An example of this is the tightly networked variety of organizations in Boyle Heights including the East Los Angeles Community Corporation, Leadership for Urban Renewal Network, Self-Help Graphics and Casa 0101, among others that are working together to both preserve and advance a vibrant predominantly Latino community where heritage-based arts and cultural practices are clearly an important community asset.

Increasingly, in Los Angeles, there is evidence of concern about how culture critically impacts our quality of life and is crucial to the identity and brand of the city and the region. Mayor Garcetti's interest in neighborhoods and his commitment to lift up the places that provide the soulful pulse of the city is evidence of this. This includes places that are already are very much tied to L.A.'s public identity like Venice, the West-side, Silver Lake, Hollywood, Los Feliz and downtown, but it also includes the vibrant places that visitors and some Angelenos are less aware of or even hesitant about visiting -- places like Boyle Heights, Westlake, Lincoln Heights, Pacoima, Leimert Park and San Pedro that have strong ethnic enclaves, some socio-economic challenges and, in some instances, have been characterized by mainstream media as dangerous.

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As is evident in the Great Streets Initiative, an effort that helps coordinate City resources from various City agencies to physically, socially and economically, improve key corridors throughout Los Angeles, and other creative placemaking-related efforts, City Hall's concern for communities has expanded from traditional basic services and amenities to also include concern for vitally important characteristics that have to do with identity, culture and creative expression. City departments involved in the Great Streets Initiative include city planning, cultural affairs, transportation, public works, sanitation, and economic and workforce development, among others.

At the county level, the efforts of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission through its creative placemaking and cultural asset mapping efforts in the Watts-Willowbrook area and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas's efforts to expand cultural asset mapping work into other parts of the second district are also evidence of a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of communities. Cultural asset mapping efforts seek to lift up and celebrate the artistic and cultural characteristics of place that help give it a unique identity. In the Watts-Willowbrook area, with the support of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, cultural asset mapping resulted in a book and video documenting cultural life and offering a more positive narrative about an economically challenged neighborhood that has been typically characterized by its deficits. The cultural asset mapping effort is not an attempt to turn a blind eye to real issues of historical inequity, rather it was intended as a way of galvanizing a community and providing a different point of view from which people inside and outside of the community can build.

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To map the cultural assets of a region we ask: What are a community's tangible and intangible cultural assets -- the places, buildings, traditions, customs, cuisines, natural features, businesses, artists, culture-bearers, stories -- that make it unique? Who are there working artists engaged with community issues and community members? Are there recognized culture-bearers -- people who pass on heritage from one generation to the next? We search for the indicators of a community that has the where-with-all to be expressive, to be interesting and compelling, to create and control its own narrative. We look for what I like to call "cultural kitchens" -- places where people come together to be generative and creative, to make culture and hash out who they are and what roles they play in the world. Is there evidence of concurrent preservation and innovation or evidence of the vibrant tensions that preservation and innovation generate? We try to identify a community's independent media -- outlets that allow for and even encourage public discourse.

This approach to place and the commitment to celebrate, cultivate and build on a community's cultural assets calls for new tools to inform planning and policy. In addition to tracking the traditional metrics such as measures of housing, transportation, employment, education, public safety and environment, new metrics and ways of assessing a community are required. With recognition that a community's cultural vitality is crucial, new and different questions have to be asked. Moreover, what we think of as the fundamental needs of a community has to be revised.

If we were to consider a community's cultural vitality alongside more traditional metrics related to housing, jobs, environmental issues, etc., what would we be tracking? What else would we need to see as fundamental amenities?

After many years of mulling this over and experimenting with how dimensions of cultural vitality might be accounted for, I have come to the conclusion that identifying the right metrics -- the right things to track -- and even collecting new and different kinds of qualitative and quantitative data that haven't been collected before isn't the hardest part of this work. Yes, we need new data collection efforts on the ground and more creative and adequate methods for capturing the essence of our neighborhoods and this will require imagination and rigor. But, perhaps the hardest part of this work is figuring out how -- in practical terms -- better and more nuanced information about a community will lead to better and more equitable planning and policymaking. If we did better understand a community's cultural assets, so what? Surely, our understanding of the people in neighborhoods would deepen and aspects of their humanity -- their history, hopes, fears, aspirations and talents--would be difficult to ignore. But how would this change the ways in which we plan communities and cities, make policies and allocate resources? This is a critical question with which we must grapple.

Los Angeles is at a crossroads. Can our leaders' bold ideas about a city and region full of vibrant neighborhoods lead to new practices in research, planning, program design and policymaking? Our real progress towards a city and region where all Angelenos can fully thrive depends on this. Or will we stick with old ways of working and a fundamentally deficient paradigm as the foundation for how we gauge our success and craft our aspirations? The stakes are too high to pretend that the old ways of working are sufficient.

Morrissey Karaoke.

The 2014 Otis Report is available for download online at Otis' website. View it here.

Read previous installments of our "State of Creativity" Series:

What Is the Creative Economy?
The creative economy is a vibrant and vital force in Los Angeles. Artbound provides deeper engagement with the Otis Report on the Creative Economy through an editorial series exploring the roots and effects of creativity.

How Arts Education Fuels the Creative Economy
Education, particularly in the arts, will play a pivotal role in preparing students' creative capacities and sustaining a creative economy.

Apparel Design and the Fabric of the Creative Economy
There are more eyes on the L.A. fashion industry than ever before. The industry creates billions of dollars in labor income in L.A. and Orange County.

Southern California's Interconnected Art Ecosystem
With an economic output of $93 million in 2013, L.A. and Orange County's galleries are punching far above their weight when it comes to their economic impact.

How Art, Science, and Technology Interact in Southern California
Over the past few decades, artists and scientists have helped bring focus to the art-science-technology track of Southern California's present creative economy.

Artbound Special Episode "State of Creativity"
A special episode on the Otis Report on the Creative Economy.

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