Creative Placemaking, revitalization and gentrification


As far as I can tell, gentrification is basically the same thing as neighborhood revitalization. It’s just that one word has a negative connotation and one has a positive connotation. The only difference that I can make out is that gentrification implies that the makeup of a neighborhood changes — as condos and money stream in, the neighborhood becomes too expensive for the previous population to live there, thereby forcing them to move elsewhere. With neighborhood revitalization, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Theoretically, the term could imply that the standard of living of residents that live there improves as new investments come into an area, but I suspect that in many cases, neighborhood revitalization implies at least a partial gentrification.

I’ve been thinking about these two terms in relation to all of the creative placemaking projects that are going on right now throughout the Twin Cities. Enormous amounts of government and nonprofit spending are being directed to projects highlighting the arts in select areas — the Central Corridor, the Arts on Chicago project, funding to turn Hennepin into an “arts district.” There are creative placemaking projects in North Minneapolis, with the Whittier Artists in Storefronts, and as part of the American Indian Cultural Corridor on Franklin Avenue. 

I’ve written about a number of these projects (and actually participated in the Whittier project), and many of them have some very cool ideas. Murals, roaming art galleries, performances in alternative spaces all excite me and make me interested in visiting the neighborhoods where they are taking place. Also, as an artist and arts supporter, I’m definitely in favor of new avenues for artists to get paid. In an ideal world, these types of creative placemaking projects involve conversations with community members, business owners, nonprofits, and city officials, and if that’s happening, it seems like a positive thing.

At the same time, I have some lingering suspicion about these types of creative placemaking projects. There have been a number of articles recently that talk about the lack of evidence for Richard Florida’s theories about “the creative class” and the evolution of that which has become “placemaking”.  I recommend Frank Bures’s The Fall of the Creative Class as well as Ian David Moss’s article from last spring about the “outcomes problem” of creative placemaking.

The latter article does a really good job of outlining a really important point — that in order for these placemaking projects to be good for the community that currently lives there, neighbors and community voices must be at the table. But even if they are at the table, is there any evidence that their lives will improve through the revitalization that supposedly is the result of creative placemaking? Perhaps it’s a matter of degree. A little revitalization may bring a more beautiful place to live, safer neighborhoods, etc. A lot of revitalization may lead to skyrocketing property values, diminished availability of affordable housing, and that scary word: gentrification.

Interestingly, one of the Arts on Chicago projects spearheaded by Pillsbury House + Theatre is a theater piece examining gentrification. That feels like a positive meta analytical step, to explore the possible ramifications of the larger creative making project through one of the activities of that project, ideally in order to prevent the negative effects of what that revitalization could bring about.

I don’t pretend to know the answers here- certainly I would like to learn more. But right now, it certainly seems like the Twin Cities are undertaking a great experiment in pockets of the two cities. It may take another 10 years e to tell what effect the light rail and all these placemaking investments have on communities.

I think that leaders who are heading these projects need to remember to keep connected with the community. They should be asking themselves how they can collaborate with schools and service organizations, with small business owners and people who actually live in a community. I think the more integrated creative placemaking can be with the welfare of a community, the less likely it will end up being a waste of money, or even worse, damaging to the community that lives there. 

4 thoughts on “Creative Placemaking, revitalization and gentrification

  1. I have always assumed that if you make a community a better place to live it will be more desirable and the market will make the costs of living there go up.

    Having lived in communities as they gentrified, it seems obvious that is exactly what happens. Not only do housing prices go up, so that the people who move in are wealthier than the people who move out, but the local amenities move upscale. The junk store becomes an antique store, the barber a hair salon, the greasy spoon a coffee shop. And every community institution and service starts to follow the same path of higher quality at a higher price. 

    Of course poor people who still live in these communities can benefit from the improvement in the community. But they can live there only if there is a determined effort to keep them in the community by creating mixed-income housing that is permanenty set aside outside the marketplace. In most cases lip service is paid to that idea, but the money is either not there or comes far too late. And for the transient parts of the community, a large group in many low income communities, even providing below market rate housing isn’t going to keep them there. The affordable housing eventually is going to end up in the hands of the stable people who stay put. 

    If you want to improve a community for the people who live there, start with the people who live there. Invest in the people not the real estate. 

    As for the “fall of the creative class’, the article seems to be a critique of overblown claims. Anyone who thought recruiting gays and artists was going to be a community’s economic engine was missing the point. They are simply indicators of a particular kind of community that is extremely attractive to people who can live anywhere. And that group that can live anywhere often includes a lot of people who are also very valuable human capital. Again, the creative class meme is really a recognition of the increasing importance of human capital. 

    As an example, Intel has very few problems transferring people from its operations in  Phoenix to Portland. Getting them to transfer the other direction is, I understand, really tough. And that is one of the reasons their most cutting edge development is done in Portland. 


  2. I think communities are generally better off when they have a diversity of wealth and, correlated with wealth, power.  Most of the time residents are advocating for the benefit of their entire neighborhood, and more well-off residents are going to be more effective advocates – they are more likely to own, and so have the autonomy to make changes on their property, they are more likely to be connected to resources and leverage outside they community, they are more likely to have the time to invest in neighborhood planning, and so on.  That power difference is simply reality – but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  Safety and crime is more of an issue for poor people, amenities like better playgrounds and sidewalks etc are helpful to everyone, and often when a landlord gets pressure from neighbors that’s to the benefit of the tenants as well.  Even when someone gets evicted that’s often to the benefit of the other tenants who suffered from a bad neighbor more than anyone, but don’t have the leverage (or sometimes simply the sense of entitlement) to demand a safe and respectful environment.

    Which is not to say that gentrification is good either.  Living in Chicago I found the gentrification there really problematic (though really I see no analog to what was happening there, happening in Minneapolis or St. Paul).  It did not feel like the community was diversifying, but rather that one community would come to replace another.  Often the very names of the neighborhood would change in the process, as a gentrifying neighborhood would in the mind of certain residents be geographically expanding.  And in a city where relatively few people owned, displacement was faster and less voluntary – property taxes don’t pressure residents out nearly as severely or as quickly as raising rents do.  New wealth in a neighborhood in Chicago felt like it offered very few benefits to existing residents.

    As for other services, I think we should expect and demand that revitalization be expansionary.  A thrift store and an upscale boutique can coexist, but it also requires that increased demand be met with the opportunity for new expanded development.  It doesn’t always work – it’s possible the existing businesses only could sustain themselves when there were buildings with very little demand and accordingly low rent, leftover buildings from a more prosperous time.

    Of course the more prosperous residents of a neighorhood are often the most anti-growth.  They might also feel a sense of entitlement about shared resources, like parking, that make them obstinate about leaving room for the full diversity of potential residents that might want to make the neighborhood a home.  And I’m sure we can identify other problems – but having identified them I believe we can also actually make progress on those problems, because people are well-meaning and there are paths to resolve problems without excluding populations though it might take some work to figure out what those paths are.

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