Placemaking As Imagined By The People Who Live There

The Shelterforce website had an interesting article about some data collection techniques being used for Creative Placemaking efforts. Author Keli Tianga’s description of a crowdmapping process was the approach that most intrigued me.

In crowdmapping, participants get out on foot and survey a neighborhood for its existing creative and cultural assets. “Every small group gets a small section of [a neighborhood’s] overall map to work from—this is so they can focus their efforts and share ideas with one another,” said Leo Vazquez, executive director of the National Consortium for Creative Placemaking.

Teams are given color-coded stickers, and mark places on the map they’ve identified for their potential. Large, blank walls on the sides of buildings can become canvasses for murals; empty, fenced-in land owned by private business can become a site for temporary large-scale sculpture installations; community gardens can also become venues for outdoor music performances, and small parks can become designated spots for contemplation or solo art-making.

In the process, I made special note of being outside and observing how a community moves and interacts with one another and with space—where people are gathered, which streets have the most pedestrians, which playground is the most popular are all things to remember when at the point of trying to reach people “where they are.”

Crowdmapping’s virtue is its practicality and democracy—it requires no prior training, and everyone’s viewpoint is useful…

What appealed to me most was that is such great participatory activity that can go a long way toward solving the problem of involving people who are most impacted by decisions but may not show up to formal meetings. People who don’t feel like they are represented or have their voices heard can gain a measure of confidence that their contributions matter when they are made responsible for imagining/suggesting what a neighborhood might become.

The article discusses how places like Baltimore are using these type of maps, overlaid with other data about social and economic indicators to make decisions about how to deploy resources.

Keli Tianga also writes about some really intensive one on one discussions that were conducted in Cincinnati as part of a process called “design thinking.”

Following a link to a story about the design thinking process on the ArtsPlace America site provided some usefl insight about why people are reluctant to participate in community meetings soliciting feedback about development plans.

…we discovered barriers that hadn’t been considered before. Many of the events weren’t physically accessible to Walnut Hills’ older residents. Other residents said they didn’t feel safe leaving their homes, or were afraid that by vocalizing their concerns they’d be labeled as “snitches.” Finally, some admitted that they thought attending these meetings would only encourage and accelerate the gentrification of their neighborhood.


High Fives was ultimately seen as a huge success for both the RF and Design Impact. Residents who hadn’t previously participated in listening sessions or community council meetings stepped up to plan what High Fives looked like, when it would happen and how to get other residents involved. Those who felt less comfortable leading tasks still contributed by spreading the word or distributing signs, a reminder that “resident leadership” can look different depending on the person.

Take A Rare Opportunity To Review Others’ Reflections

Back in August I called attention to a transmedia project in Reading, PA, “This Is Reading,” that playwright Lynn Nottage and a host of others worked on creating to help the community tell stories about itself.

I had initially learned about the project via a post by Margy Waller and must credit her again for tweeting about a follow up conversation that occurred.

With such a push for placemaking and community building projects like “This Is Reading,” having access to the reflections of project participants is of great value to others engaging in similar work.  There are a number of observations and lessons learned that can provide guidance about what worked and what needed to be done better.  It is rare to have this type of material shared publicly so take advantage of the opportunity.

Not only does the newspaper article provide a summary of the report, the report itself is embedded in the webpage and is available for download.

The first thing that caught my eye was that the meetings from which the feedback was collected appeared to be driven by the participants’ desire to continue the momentum started by the project.  The impression I got from the article was that a post-mortem conversation hadn’t been planned, but the project leadership were wise enough to recognize the need to do so.

“The reason we wanted to do this meeting is because this was a more than five-year process,” he said of the installation. “A lot of the volunteers and a lot of the participants expressed interest in what’s next. To me, it was ‘Let’s debrief, let’s talk about it.’ “

The fact of Reading’s decline plays a large part in the content of the project and the subsequent feedback. (Recall the railroad was famous enough to be included in the Monopoly game.) There are multiple times in the report that the investment young people have in the community is called into question. This is in tension with the perception that the nostalgic project content had a greater resonance with older attendees than younger.

The article mentions that the phrase “Reading was…” kept coming up in conversations during the development phase of the project so the title “This Is Reading” was an attempt to emphasize the need to break from a focus on the past and dated thinking.

Given that this exactly mirrors the conversation occurring in the arts (perception youth are not committed, content only relevant to older generation) there are any number of lessons here for the arts and culture community.

Here is the summary listed in the newspaper article:

• Being a person of color in Reading is wrought with stress, tension and discomfort.
• Reading can be a vibrant center of arts and culture if there are significant outreach efforts to invite and welcome; the art is interesting to people of different ethnic, racial or economic backgrounds; and obstacles that prevent or deter participation are eliminated.
• Its self-perception impedes the city’s ability to move forward.
• There is a strong interest and desire in the resurrection of a rail system that would connect our community with nearby communities.
• Long-held community “stories” or narratives can be rewritten by the arts in public spaces.
• There is a desperate need for a shared downtown public performance arts space.
• The city needs a vision that focuses on what Reading is and can be, not what it was.
• Youth and young adults in Reading need to be encouraged, developed and engaged.
• Leadership is needed to champion efforts to build on “This Is Reading,” and the most effective champion would be the city.

Judging Yourself As You Judge Others

Something I don’t really often see people write about are the benefits of sitting on a grant panel, especially for an organization that funds you. First of all, the organization will love you for helping them out, especially during the heaviest period in their granting cycle.

Perhaps the biggest benefit for you will be identifying those areas people like yourself do well or fall short in making the case for their programs.  You can get advice about how to write an effective proposal on a monthly basis, but until you apply a critical eye to a proposal from outside disciplines, geography and demographic attributes with which you are familiar, you aren’t likely to appreciate all the potential pitfalls.

I recently participated in a panel for my state arts council for a program my organization wasn’t eligible to participate in.

There were a number of times people referenced discipline specific shorthand or neighborhoods/towns they were doing outreach in. I suspected that this information would be more compelling if I better understood the relevance.

Recognizing that I was probably making the same mistake of assuming reviewers would be excited by similar discussions of accomplishments for which they had no frame of reference, I started to pull out old grant proposals and found a number of places that could probably use additional information about why it was important that certain groups were involved or being represented in our programs.

During the panel review process I made additional notes as panelists would comment about things they wished they had seen more detail about. In other cases, it was observed too much time was spent talking about other organizational activities rather than focusing on the proposed project.

Now I will grant you, often space limitations imposed by the application form makes it difficult to provide the detail that will really allow your project to shine. It is important to make a case with the granting organization that 3-4 more lines of text would make all the difference.  Volunteering to serve on a grant panel can provide you with the opportunity to make that case in person.

I also want to acknowledge that when you are faced with a tall pile of proposals to review, the last thing you want to do is engage in prolonged introspection of the strengths and weaknesses of your own submissions. But it can be worthwhile to at least take the time to make duplicates of notes that represent potential areas of concern in your work for later review.

Then, of course, there is benefit in seeing what other people are doing. What novel ideas and approaches are out there? How are others executing their programs? How are they defining and measuring success? What strategies are they employing to deal with challenges?

One really, really general piece of advice I will give based on what I have seen is to make sure your website has links to your social media accounts. This is website and social media 101, but I was surprised at how many people mention they promote their events on social media, but don’t have links on their websites. Web searches will turn the social media accounts up, but there was often no easy way for someone who discovered an organization through their website to stay connected through social media.  (Actually, it might be more accurate to say that a web search turned some of them up, I have no idea if I found the full range of online presence.)


Volunteering Ain’t Free

Somewhat apropos of yesterday’s post, Non-Profit Quarterly had a post about Phoenix Comicon’s recent decision to charge volunteers to work their convention.

I am not sure this is really a scandalous decision given that many outdoor festivals I know have had this policy for going on two decades. The more controversial aspect might be that the Con is a for-profit company that was requiring people to become members of a 501 (c) (7) non-profit for which the Con leadership were officers in order to become volunteers. Many objected that this was a major conflict of interest.

But as the Non Profit Quarterly noted (and as I suggested yesterday), co-ordinating the work of volunteers ain’t cheap:

Finally, for charitable nonprofits, or 501(c)(3) organizations, requesting payment for volunteering is an increasingly popular practice, and one that helps organizations sustain their operations—and, in particular, recruit, manage, and sustain the volunteer workforce they often rely upon. While it can feel counterintuitive for volunteers to pay to serve, the effort required for nonprofits to absorb and deploy a volunteer workforce is significant. As both formal corporate volunteer programs and solo entrepreneurs looking to build up their client base increase, volunteers are a plentiful resource for 501(c)(3) organizations. It’s critical to balance the value these volunteers deliver with the cost it takes to engage them.

Another reason to charge volunteers many event organizers, both for and non-profit, will cite is that it shows investment and provides incentive to actually work their shift. As someone who has run an outdoor music festival, I can attest that there is always a segment of the volunteer base that sign up just to get free admission to the event. According to a re-post of a letter by Phoenix Comic-con’s director, combating no-shows and reining in ballooning staffing was the primary reason for pursuing a pay to volunteer model.  In the last few days, they have re-evaluated their decision to have volunteers register as members of the aligned non-profit.