Creative Placemaking: A Reader’s Response

By     Jul 23, 2014

Field Notes

These articles were originally featured on Field Notes, National Arts Strategies' ArtsJournal blog where we mine, distill and contextualize ideas; provide frameworks that anyone can use; and offer everyone in the field the opportunity to discuss the underlying issues.

We asked all of you to join in on this conversation as well. Mary Means works as a consultant for her firm Mary Means + Associates and has extensive experience in community-based strategic planning. Prior to entering consulting, Mary was Vice President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, where she is best known for having created the National Main Street program. The following are her answers to our questions posed on creative placemaking.


How do you define “community?”

It depends on where and what I am working on.  I’m a community planning consultant with more than 40 years of experience, first as a non-profit provider of no-cost technical assistance to communities, then as the owner of a boutique consulting firm known for “building bridges between plans and people.”  Community engagement runs throughout every assignment.  Back to where and what.  In the case of a historic African American educational institution on a South Carolina Sea Island, community includes the Gullah people of that island and vicinity, alumni and children of alumni.  At a secondary level community also includes Caucasian residents of the area who believe in the institution’s survival.

In the case of a distressed community in South Florida that is 95% African American and Latino, community includes the residents of the municipality and those engaged in improving their quality of life.


How do you see your role in the community?

As a consultant, usually “from away,”  I view my client as the fiscal agent and sponsor of my work, and I honor this relationship fully.  But in my heart the true client is the community: all who will benefit in the long term from the revitalization work we are engaged in.  Not infrequently, I am an advocate for the latter in my dealings with the formal client.


Talk about the work you’re doing in your community. What was the catalyst for this work? What started you on this journey?

I began my professional life in the Midwest in the 1970s, charged with helping communities form preservation organizations or otherwise preserve historic buildings.  I could see that downtowns of small towns and medium sized cities were dying as business fled to greenfields and highway corridors.  Looking back, I felt the downtown was the center of more than commerce, it was the traditional crossroad of community life – and the lights were going out. It was a lot more than historic architecture at stake.

So I conceived of an experiment to see what might help keep Main Street alive.  Working in three pilot towns for three years we learned what worked and what did not.  We  synthesized it into a conceptual framework called the Main Street Approach, developed training materials and courses, conferences and a film—and unexpectedly took it to scale.  There are now more than 1500 towns and urban commercial corridors that have used these materials and approach to bring life back to their communities.

Each Main Street – or Elm Street or whatever the name core public heart of a town or city – is a distinctive place, or was before engineers arrived with pedestrian malls or one-way pairs for streets, and siding salesmen pitched the newest “cover up” for familiar buildings. Factors that contribute to this distinction include the presence of civic institutions, cultural gathering places that might be theaters or a town square,

In my consulting practice I work with places that retain some degree of authentic character and that seek to build upon it for enhanced economic opportunity and quality of life.  Often this involves aspects of downtown revitalization. It can also involve heritage or cultural tourism, but with a bent towards local benefit rather than doing things for the sake of tourists.


What is the driving force? What continues to motivate the work?

I love it when my efforts help the community’s leaders achieve a) a shared vision, b) understanding of what needs to be done to achieve it, c) momentum that overcomes inertia, and d) results.  It is personally and professionally fulfilling.  I feel like my work has made a difference in people’s lives and their connections to their community.


Who is it for? Who benefits from this work?

The larger community, the youth who may be able to return or remain there and raise families thanks to improved economic competitiveness.


When you hear the terms “cultural sector” or “arts and culture field” do you feel that includes you? Why or why not?

I try to use words that regular people can understand and relate to.  “Cultural sector” and “arts and culture field” are not among them.  Personally, I cannot identify with either of these.  I am a community planning consultant whose strategic perspective and ability to engage with the grasstops as well as the grassroots has helped retain and enhance authentic places. Sometimes this involves cultural programming (ethnic festivals, performances, exhibits, food truck rallies, etc.) or public art installations, or artist involvement in public improvements, but I would never call myself a worker in the arts and culture field.


Why do you think people are talking about creative placemaking so much now? 

Festival market place was the “in” term in the 1970s, 80s.  Creative placemaking is the current term for an amazing new discovery:  one can design new environments that learn from the best of historic ones (witness lifestyle centers in revamped shopping centers being reborn as mixed use neighborhoods), and one can repair sagging older town centers with the “creative” insertion of pocket parks, bicycle lanes and racks, sculpture, occasional musical performances or puppet shows or other events.

When well done, it can be magical.  I just spent part of my morning in downtown Bethesda MD, where everything comes together and people are drawn to be there on a weekday morning – strolling, sitting over coffee under shady street trees, pushing strollers, etc. It is creative placemaking (AKA urban design, very well executed) at its best.  When it is slapped on like a kit of parts, or plopped down to gussy up a failed plaza, it’s an euphemism for ‘we tried, but not very hard.”


Finally, fill in the blank: Creative/cultural work makes communities _______.

Stronger for bringing people together in ways that bring out the best in them.