Community Progress Blog

Bridging policy and placemaking to activate vacant properties in the Twin Cities

Written by on August 7, 2017

Placemaking–and creative placemaking–has received a lot of attention over the past few years in community development circles—but what is it? And how does it relate to vacant and abandoned spaces?

The Project for Public Spaces defines placemaking in this way: “Strengthening the connection between people and the places they share, Placemaking refers to a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm in order to maximize shared value. More than just promoting better urban design, Placemaking facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution.”

But, amid the daily struggles of an abandoned house or a chronically vacant lot with high weeds and grass and illegal dumping concerns, it’s difficult to view these spaces as assets. And, it’s easy for governmental and community development professionals to focus their energy on the grand redevelopment plan, as opposed to more immediate efforts to redefine spaces.

Creative placemaking adds an explicit arts twist to placemaking strategies. But artists, if they can even figure out who to call about a particular abandoned property, may struggle to know how to navigate the real estate world—particularly distressed real estate.

Often, neighborhoods suffering from long-term disinvestment and large numbers of vacant and abandoned properties face ever more tensions about those properties. Here residents and neighborhood advocates may approach traditional redevelopment interventions with hope but may also fear the changes they will bring, anticipating displacement or a changing neighborhood identity.

While distressed neighborhoods often have a disproportionately high number of vacant properties, the possibility of future large projects, however remote, can still stifle opportunities for creative placemaking. Inviting the arts community to take on these properties can require some problem-solving around insurance, safety, and the longevity of the proposed interventions—but the community and economic benefits can be profound.

Nonetheless, too often the system is designed to address abandoned and vacant property is focused on the long-term redevelopment potential, as opposed to the opportunities to tap artists for immediate creative solutions.

Last fall, Community Progress convened a cross-sector group of policy makers, community development professionals, artists, and philanthropic leaders from Detroit, Flint, Minneapolis, and St. Paul in Albany, New York, to explore how creative placemaking can advance community development goals. In this exchange, participants learned about Breathing Lights, a Bloomberg Philanthropies-funded art project that installed undulating panels of light in the windows of hundreds of vacant homes in Albany, Schenectady, and Troy.

After a productive discussion about this project that began to dig into how to ensure equity is a driving principle of revitalization projects, with neighborhood leadership front and center, participants returned home – but the project was just beginning. Community Progress’ Nicole Heyman and consultant Katy Renn visited Detroit, Minneapolis, and St. Paul to further explore how cities are breaking down barriers to implement creative placemaking projects.

Our visit to Detroit unveiled some powerful examples of artists activating vacant properties. Our discussions with leaders in the art, governmental, philanthropic, and nonprofit communities revealed that relationships are being built within the placemaking community. Arts and culture organizations are forming partnerships with government to learn how to access vacant lots and underutilized structures to activate creative placemaking projects. While the partnerships among local government, the arts and culture community, and neighborhood-based organizations are in their infancy, based on our conversations with leaders in Detroit, we anticipate that government leaders will embrace the arts community and work together to develop neighborhood-based arts and placemaking projects throughout Detroit.

Our visits to Minneapolis and St. Paul resulted in two public reports (download Minneapolis and St. Paul – both are PDFs) that explore what systems are effectively supporting creative placemaking in each city, and where those systems could potentially be strengthened. The Twin Cities are examples of Midwestern cities with stable, healthy housing markets. Neither city has a large number of vacant and abandoned properties when compared to many peer cities.

Yet unfortunately, like many cities, the highest number of vacant and abandoned properties exist in neighborhoods that are home to people of color and to recent immigrants. When paired with housing development pressures, the debates about how to activate these spaces becomes a bit more complicated, though with barriers and challenges that will feel relatable to nearly every city. Common barriers include the need for arts and culture organizations to learn more about navigating municipal systems to access publicly owned property for placemaking projects and to work within local zoning and permitting requirements.

The Twin Cities, building off a deep cultural commitment to the arts, along with strong philanthropic support, are breaking down some of these barriers.

St. Paul employs two City Artists. Minneapolis hires artists to conduct outreach for city planning processes. St. Paul has a nonprofit dedicated to supporting artists in their efforts to engage in social practice in various neighborhoods, and a Minneapolis community development corporation employs artists who work to activate privately-owned and public spaces along their business corridor. Each of these cities still s some barriers in this work, but their examples can serve as models for other cities wanting to incorporate the artistic community into the solutions for vacant and abandoned properties.

Engaging artists and residents to reclaim these spaces can be challenging—from insurance concerns to desires to maximize tax revenue and short-term revenue from the sale of properties, there are always barriers to opening these spaces up for placemaking activities. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul are demonstrating there are ways to successfully do this work, including by creating a place at the land use decision-making table for resident voices to be heard in redevelopment decisions.

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