Does Creative Placemaking Work? It’s Complicated

Back in November Slover Linett released the results of a multi-year study on creative placemaking. The study was primarily focused on the impact that music pavilion and band shells that the Levitt Foundation has constructed or renovated across the country.

In the process of discussing the results of the study, the study authors made some very interesting statements about the process and goals of creative placemaking. In particular, they say that measuring the economic impact of creative placemaking is not an accurate measure of the value of creative placemaking in the community.

If you have been reading this blog over the last few months, you probably know that I have been increasingly advocating that the value of the arts should not be measured in terms of impact on economy, education, etc., so these statements were of particular interest to me.

In the executive summary they talk about how assessments of creative placemaking effectiveness have changed:

At first, creative placemaking assessment efforts were focused on developing “indicators” of change and success: new frameworks for bringing together a variety of data points that are related to intended creative placemaking outcomes, which can be tracked over time to gauge the impact of the investment in creative placemaking initiatives. But it has since become clear that the indicators approach has real limitations, especially with respect to connecting changes in the indicators with specific features or activities of any given creative placemaking project

As the authors looked at creative placemaking and the research that has been done in regard to it, they found that there were myriad factors inherent to each neighborhood that contributed to any improvement or lack thereof so it was difficult to credit placemaking for improving conditions. Also no one is consistently gathering data on some other factors that have relevance. (my emphasis)

One objection was that, because data for the indicators is usually collected on a relatively broad geographic level as well as a broad, somewhat abstract conceptual level (based on hard-to-define notions like economic vitality, vibrancy, and livability), it’s virtually impossible to connect any given creative placemaking project with observed change (or lack of change) in the indicators. Another concern was that defining the indicators at such a broad, conceptual level failed to respond to each creative placemaking project’s unique goals, vision, and starting point. [Ian David] Moss argued that there was essentially no mechanism for connecting the Endowment’s investments in Our Town projects to the indicators one sees. A project could be entirely successful on its own terms but fail to move the needle in a meaningful way in its city or neighborhood. Or it could be caught up in a wave of transformation sweeping the entire community, and wrongly attribute that wave to its own efforts. There’s simply no way for us to tell.

Now if this is the case for creative placemaking efforts, it raises a question about whether one could truly draw a connection between construction/renovation/expansion of a facility or introduction of a new program initiative and positive economic outcomes in a city or neighborhood. To some extent these statements seems to suggest that many claims of economic impact by arts entities outside of their direct spending are on shaky ground and may need to be re-evaluated.

On the other hand, a placemaking effort could appear to have had no benefit when measured in terms of economic impact, but had a substantial positive social impact. Of course, a positive economic impact may have a negative social impact as residents are dispossessed by gentrification.

In our view, the indicators systems also often unintentionally favored economic vitality and livability over outcomes related to building a community’s social capital, in large part because there is little or no national, regularly collected data on levels of empowerment, self-efficacy, social bonding, or social bridging—concepts which may be more subjective than economic indicators but are central goals of many creative placemaking efforts and are widely considered critical components of the social health of a place. As a result, some practitioners argued that the indicators-based approach to measuring the impact of creative placemaking could privilege projects that are economically beneficial but may actually diminish the social capital of a community and its members—for instance, by highlighting the economic impact of creative placemaking investments without reckoning with unintended consequences like gentrification on those who might be displaced because of rising property values.

If you think I have been overly idealistic in advocating for a consideration of the intrinsic value of art, here is a little bit of evidence of a shift toward seeing the less easily quantifiable impacts as valid and worthy goals.

As I am sure my frequent interlocutor Carter Gillies would point out, valuing the arts for positive social impact is still something of a prescriptive view of the arts rather than prizing the intrinsic value. But it feels like a step in the right direction to look at the benefits to human relationships over commerce.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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