Wherein I Compare Creative Placemaking To Spaghetti Sauce

I don’t remember how I came across it, but a few weeks ago I bookmarked an interview Michael Rohd, a faculty member at Arizona State University, conducted with Roberto Bedoya, City of Oakland’s Cultural Affairs Manager; Jamie Bennett, Executive Director of ArtPlace America; and Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson, a professor at Arizona State University.

They were discussing the process of creative placemaking and how it should be applied in the future in order to acknowledge and honor the needs and concerns of the communities impacted by creative placemaking efforts.

The prologue to the interview mentions the term creative placemaking has been criticized for:

1) suggesting that the people and cultures rooted in a place had not already made it; 2) initially lacking a clear statement of values regarding who was meant to benefit from the community development of which the arts and culture were a part.

In response, people have started using the term creative placekeeping instead. I have heard this come up at a number of conferences I have attended. However, Bedoya notes that while there are legitimate concerns about gentrification and displacement– or replacement, especially in the eyes of communities of color, there is a need to be cautious with the term placekeeping as well.

The trap around place-keeping is sentimentality — “I want the old days” — and it’s not thoughtful. What are we trying to keep, and how, so it stays fresh and new? I think the future of creative placemaking is people not as intensely problematizing it, but trying to figure out the actions associated with placemaking or keeping, to create agency and a notion of civic commitment.

I found this idea of examining how to bring freshness to the elements we are trying to “keep” very intriguing. If you fear the loss of front stoops/porches in your neighborhood, what it is that will be lost? Is it the safe place for kids to play away from the streets? It is the socialization found in waving to neighbors as they pass or inviting them to mount the steps to chat? Is there a way to maintain that somewhere or someway else?

Though as I continued to play my example out in my head, I would think it would almost be preferable that porches and stoops replace a central gathering place that is being repurposed than to lose the stoops and send everyone to gather in a central place.

Another section I that caught my attention was Bennett’s comments about the scope of vision needed for implementing placemaking/placekeeping plans so that it encompasses all potential benefits and consequences. (my emphasis)

How do you figure out if your actions contributed toward healthy, equitable, and sustainable communities? Professor Andrew Taylor at American University reminded me that the first rule of systems thinking is that there is no such thing as side effects, there are only effects. If you are experiencing something as a side effect, it means you haven’t drawn the boundaries of your system widely enough. Many people say, “I’m making an economic development play, and there is an unfortunate side effect that people are displaced or replaced,” to borrow from Roberto. We need to draw the boundaries of our system wide enough that we understand that those are not unrelated or accidental, but part of one system.

At first I thought about how difficult it is to anticipate all the effects a plan might have. But as I considered longer, I realized if you are paying attention to what is happening in other communities that are implementing similar efforts, it isn’t difficult to become aware of the potential positive and negative impacts. Using the term “side effect” in these instances seems like an attempt to minimize the importance of these problems. Acknowledging it as an effect of a plan is to take responsibility for the problems it may cause.

If someone tells you one of the side effects of eating spaghetti sauce is a 80% chance you will have a sleepless night of heartburn, that really isn’t a small issue to you. If that is something you face, you consume the marinara sauce fully aware that any difficulty sleeping is a consequence of your decision and no one else. Likewise, if you are serving spaghetti and offer no other options, you should be aware that it is possible your choice will cause discomfort for some guests.

Education vs Learning

Seth Godin had a post recently where he made the distinction between education and learning. The way he differentiated the two was that education is  based in compliance and authority–you were able to memorize information or perform in an approved manner in order to pass a test measuring your mastery of content on a certain day.

Learning, by his definition, is part of an ongoing process.

Learning that embraces doing. The doing of speaking up, reviewing and be reviewed. The learning of relevant projects and peer engagement. Learning and doing together, at the same time, each producing the other.

While there is some degree of compliance and submission to authority associated with training in arts disciplines, (some to a greater degree than others), there is a large component of practical doing involved as well.

In the process, one gains many of the tools and skills required for evaluation. Whether one uses those tools to reinforce compliance and authority or to enact self-reflective change is another matter.

It occurred to me that there is some irony to the fact that skillsets that are a result of education with little practical content is frequently more highly valued than an education that has a high degree of practice.

Basically, a person who graduates with a dance degree likely has a lot more experience in real life application of their skills than a graduate with an accounting degree, but which is valued more?

Certainly, not all practical experience is valued, regardless of how good you are at it.  Even the best shepherd in the world is going to have a difficult time finding a job in the US.

What Godin says is needed is engaging in the boring, methodical work of self-assessment, data analysis, etc that helps you learn about yourself and what works.

Of course, there is always something we don’t know so we do need to get instruction from somewhere. But there is no seminar or workshop that will provide all the magical answers, it will just point you to the place to start asking questions.

 

Is Creative Placemaking The Poor Man’s Gentrification?

Part of last week I was attending the Creative Placemaking Leadership Summit for the South and Appalachian region.

I am sorry to say that one of the biggest impressions I came away with is that poverty is the rule rather than the exception in this country. Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. I grew up in a rural town and spent a good part of my youth consuming government cheese, rice and powdered milk. I worked in an Appalachian community that was notorious for pill mills and opioid addiction nearly 20 years ago before it was considered so much a crisis that organizations started refusing donations from pharmaceutical companies.

But these all seemed to be generally isolated instances compared to the whole of the country. More and more I am not so sure.

I spent three days last week listening to the majority of the presenters talk about the great projects they have enacted in communities where the median income for a household of four hovers between $19,000 and $32,000 a year.

One of the questions in the first session I attended was about whether placemaking was happening predominantly in rural and impoverished communities. At the time I was thinking about all the urban gentrification that has been going on so I didn’t think that was the case, but by the time I got to the end of conference, I started to wonder if anyone was using creative placemaking as a tool in affluent urban communities. More and more it seemed like Creative Placemaking is something people turn to in order to improve economically depressed communities.

I began to suspect the effort to improve in big cities it is just termed development. If there is any creative element that emerges, it is in compliance with percent for art requirements forcing projects to add artistic elements.

Most of the presenters and attendees seemed to be from small communities. There were some people from Miami and Alameda County, CA at the conference but they talked about how their projects were improving lives in impoverished neighborhoods and creating more positive relationships with the police.  No one was talking about projects on the scale of New York City’s Highline or Hudson Yards

I will confess that this is a large chunk of cynicism talking right now. So much of what is accomplished in smaller communities is definitely due to governments, developers and community advocates entering in conversations to find innovative solutions that improve the status of the entire community. Maybe bigger cities aren’t attending these conferences because they don’t feel the need to participate since they already have developers salivating to build something. As a result, I am hearing the stories of communities with fewer resources.

At the same time I listen to people talk about all small projects they bootstrapped into being viewed as a vast improvement because it added a small walking trail and pole barn pavilion. The fact that this trail is touted as something people can use to spend time with their families after a 10 day of work almost has undertones of those commercials telling us we can improve the lives of people overseas “for pennies a day.” Except that it isn’t overseas. It is kinda dispiriting.

I don’t have to tell those of you in the arts community that even when a project clearly has improved conditions, it isn’t necessarily valued. Germaine Jenkins talked about the farm she and her colleagues at Fresh Future Farm created in North Charleston, SC, transforming an empty lot into a garden with a store that charges people on a sliding scale according to their need. Her lease is up in September with no indication of whether it will be renewed.

There was a time when people were criticizing the superficial understanding of Richard Florida’s observations of the relationship between Creative Class and vibrant communities. There was a sense that you just needed to attract creative people to place and they would take care of the rest. I feel like Creative Placemaking reflects a more sophisticated understanding that a complex mix of factors from public policy, community dynamics, business and cultural resources, etc need to be in place and requires constant attention and balancing.

Yet I am starting to wonder if people see the success of creative placemaking efforts elsewhere and perceive it to be the panacea for the problems that plague their communities.

Yet, perhaps this is what is needed at this juncture– the example of success elsewhere as a model of what should be done locally. Last week Notre Dame cathedral burned down and people apparently recognized that there was a spate of recent church burning in the US that had not received the attention and support that the cathedral did and started donating toward the restoration of those US churches. The people who are undertaking these project understand that there is a lot of hard work and consensus building required. Maybe the examples of others will bring a positive result in the long run.

If The Metric Is Valued, Someone Is Probably Trying To Game The System

Okay, so I promise I am not seeking out articles that discuss the problems with depending on quantitative metrics to determine effectiveness and value. They just keep falling into my lap. This one is via Dan Pink and is kinda fun to read thanks to some animations.

The piece in The Hustle has us follow the “career” of  Otis has he moves from being a cashier to sales to online advertising to programming to surgery in order to illustrate how the use of quotas and efficiency metrics permeates every industry and every profession to incentivize gaming the system in order to generate the best appearance.

But Otis came to learn that metrics weren’t inherently bad — his bosses had just failed to grasp two important economic principles:

  • Goodhart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure,” and
  • Campbell’s Law: The more a metric is used, the more likely it is to “corrupt the process it is intended to monitor.”

He realized that when his performance was measured with a specific metric, he optimized everything to hit it, regardless of the consequences that arose. As a visiting professor at the London School of Economics told him, improper targets could:

  • Encourage “gaming” the system (e.g., bagging free groceries)
  • Incentivize the wrong aspects of work (e.g., writing trivial code)
  • Erode morale (e.g., writing clickbait)
  • Harm customers (e.g., turning away critical surgery patients)

And so, Otis decided to start his own company — a company where metrics would serve their true purpose: To motivate and align. Efficiency, Otis finally realized, isn’t just output; it is the value of what is produced.

If you think about the measures being applied to non-profit arts and cultural organizations like overhead ratio, economic impact, test scores, etc and pay attention to what organizations are doing in order to meet those metrics, you will probably start to see behaviors that conform to those listed above.

It could manifest as massaging numbers in financials and research; chasing funding that doesn’t align with mission and strains capacity; superficial efforts that check desired boxes; pursuit of a narrow segment of community rather than a focus on broader inclusion. I am sure readers can think of many examples from their own experiences.

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