Imagine a city where every corner is a testament to its diverse inhabitants and where every public space is a welcoming stage for cultural exchange. This vision was brought to life during the 2023 ULI Spring Meeting panel titled “The Welcoming City: Encouraging Diversity and Inclusion through Creative Placemaking.”

The panelists delved into the transformative power of creative placemaking and the importance of creating spaces that are not just physically appealing, but also emotionally resonant for all the city’s inhabitants.

The Power of Creative Placemaking

Creative placemaking is a collaborative process that uses arts and culture to shape the physical and social character of a place with the aim of promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. The panelists emphasized the importance of engaging with the community from the outset.

Rob C. Hain, global chief executive officer of Sound Diplomacy, shared his company’s approach to learning everything about the cultural aspects of a site area, from venues and festivals to creative workspaces. This deep understanding of the community’s cultural fabric allows for the creation of spaces that truly resonate with the people who inhabit them.

One example discussed was the transformation of Huntsville, Alabama. Once struggling with a declining downtown and a shuttered shopping mall, the city turned to creative placemaking to revitalize its urban center. The result was a vibrant new community, anchored by a state-of-the-art amphitheater that stands on the site of a former shopping center’s parking lot; the venue was even designed with the help of members of the band Mumford & Sons. “So, it can be done,” Hain concluded, “but you have to start at the beginning with engagement and the facts.”

The Role of Artists and Community Engagement

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The panelists stressed the importance of active programming and ongoing engagement to ensure the success of creative placemaking projects. Juanita Hardy, a nationally recognized creative placemaking consultant and author of the ULI report Creative Placemaking, noted that it is “really important to get community buy-in on a project, especially if you’re building something in an existing community.” She highlighted the role of artists as trusted figures within communities, whose involvement can significantly advance a project.

Melani N. Douglass, public programs director for the National Museum of Women in the Arts and founder of the Family Arts Museum, both in Washington, D.C., echoed this sentiment. She emphasized that artists are naturally trained to engage with communities. An artist’s livelihood depends on the ability to understand and respond to the needs and desires of the community, and this makes them invaluable partners in creative placemaking projects.

“We usually know what’s happening,” Douglass said. “We know how people are currently using spaces [and] have often researched into detail how the community is attached to a property.”

Transformative Placemaking and Economic Impact

The panel also touched on the concept of transformative placemaking, which goes beyond creating attractive spaces to fostering economic growth and social cohesion. Jennifer Vey, senior fellow with Brookings Metro and director of the Robert M. Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking, discussed the economic impacts of placemaking.

Vey highlighted the importance of ensuring that spaces remain accessible and comfortable even when there is no active programming, allowing people to use and activate the space themselves.

Transformative placemaking also involves a deep understanding of the economic dynamics of a community. It is not just about creating spaces, but also about creating opportunities for economic growth and development. This can involve supporting local businesses, creating job opportunities, or fostering an environment that attracts investment.

The goal is to create a place that is not only welcoming and inclusive, but also economically vibrant and sustainable.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

The panel provided many insights into the power of creative and transformative placemaking, stressing the importance of community engagement, the role of artists in doing so, and the potential for placemaking to drive economic growth and foster diversity, equity, and inclusion.

As cities and communities around the world grapple with the challenges of urban growth and community displacement, the lessons from this panel offer a road map for creating welcoming, inclusive, and vibrant places for all.