In the fourth century BCE, the Greek philosopher Plato, denizen of Athens, wrote about the value of Beauty (it was capital B back then) to civic life. The idea was that people’s day-to-day welfare benefitted from the presence of beautiful things: architecture, gardens, music, poetry and communal events: theater performances and even sports competitions – the Greeks invented the Olympics, after all.
Beauty was at the core of a good life for individuals, but by and large also benefitted the city. Happy citizens are engaged citizens who participate in making their communities better. Community prosperity, as well, is linked to people’s well-being. In addition to Beauty, in Plato’s view, great cities also provide opportunities for wealth development, good health and safety (he called it Justice).
Fast-forward to now. “Creative Placemaking” is a phrase that describes developers, city planners and high-profile foundations pushing efforts toward city improvement and redevelopment, often with the arts at the core. Today’s idea is much the same as it was back then, and it is increasingly embraced here in the United States and internationally. In 2012, the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, a national leadership initiative, commissioned a study to look at making cities more vibrant, more creative, increasing the welfare of citizens, and attracting new residents, businesses and tourists so that cities flourish and thrive.
“Creative Placemaking has been the sexy phrase in community development for the past two decades,” said Laura Kelly, project director for Flagstaff Cultural Partners and the driving force behind the ArtBox Institute. The ArtBox is a local initiative to support artists in Flagstaff by providing business and marketplace skills so they can earn a living producing their art. Creative Placemaking is also a strategy for transforming underutilized or vacant city zones into centers of activity. “The concept works best,” said Kelly, “when civic, arts, business and community organizations and leaders collaborate to encourage using vacant or fallow spaces and buildings to create arts spaces for people to gather and participate.”
Creative Placemaking is at the center of another Flagstaff initiative headed by Mark DiLucido, community design and redevelopment administrator for the city. Vision Flagstaff is a new online outreach tool that asks residents for active input in making Flagstaff more vibrant and creative. Based on the Facebook concept of “likes,” anyone “having an investment in the favorable outcome of an idea can suggest the idea and then lobby for it,” DiLucido said. “Suppose you want to see more community vegetable gardens in Flagstaff, or expanded bike trails. Or, you think Flagstaff would be improved by developments in the 4th Street corridor. Perhaps your idea is as simple as wanting better lighting for nighttime activities at Heritage Square. Log on to visionflagstaff.com, register and then submit your idea,” said DiLucido. “Or comment and ‘Like’ other ideas that make sense to you. Once an idea reaches 50 ‘Likes’ – shows strong community support – a feasibility study kicks in,” he added. It’s the ultimate in citizen-government interface.
For those who think that government is not responsive to citizen demands, Vision Flagstaff changes the playing field. DiLucido explained that the 50 “Like” threshold “prioritizes ideas and determines which ones have the greatest potential for implementation.” He cautioned, nonetheless, that “there’s only so much beautification and public art funding to go around.”
Ultimately, it is people who make a city. Though it often appears that we spend more time at home in front of a computer or television screen, people are drawn to creative places where things are happening. “When people gather,” said Kelly, “neighborhoods transform, businesses sprout, community deepens and a place that was once dormant begins to bloom.” The point isn’t just to provide exciting things for people to do. Places where people gather tend to be safer. There is less vandalism, fewer muggings and less crime in general. “Buildings once empty can become a hub,” said Kelly, “a nexus, a clubhouse, an economic engine, a magnet and a bridge – literally and metaphorically.”
Creative Placemaking is also about supporting a city’s unique character. Anyone already living here knows what makes Flagstaff unique. Mark DiLucido pointed out, however, that Flagstaff is also the world’s first Dark Sky City and America’s first STEM (Science, Engineering, Technology and Math) city. In other words, Flagstaff is well on its way to being the kind of creative place that recent trends, internationally, describe. “Flagstaff should be a very robust creative place in 20 years,” said DiLucido. “Vision Flagstaff will play an instrumental role in getting us there.” FBN