WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Posts tagged ‘community development’

Preparing for Change

February 2nd, 2011

During a recent trip to New Orleans, I reconnected with an urban planning friend, now a professor at University of New Orleans. We exchanged many stories about our respective studies and project work. Since then, I’ve been mulling over the effects of severe population loss in cities – one of her research topics inspired in part by Hurricane Katrina’s effect on the city. Katrina forced New Orleans to undergo dramatic changes in a short period of time, thereby demanding the development of community revitalization strategies. Most of us are familiar with arguments and examples of arts as a means of community development, a driver of urban revitalization, beautification and business development.

A recent Mission Models Money (MMM) paper, titled “Sustainable Ability,” argues that we should now focus on art’s ability to elevate the importance of intrinsic values in order to adapt to changing conditions, and hopefully resolve or mitigate larger problems such as climate change. In this argument, intrinsic values refer to “what matters on the inside…aspects of ourselves that value community, family, connection to others” that often act as a greater motivator for change than scientific evidence. MMM and others (e.g., The Canadian Geographer’s 2004 article “Reimagining Sustainable Cultures: Constitutions, Land and Art” by Nancy Doubleday, et. al.) assert that the arts act as a galvanizing force to strengthen and heal communities. The arts are a vehicle for solving complex issues through re-imagining the future and highlighting different perspectives, and an agent for changing ingrained and destructive behaviors. In other words, community and cultural resilience is a byproduct of a thriving creative sector. A recent Arts Council England paper – Making Adaptive Resiliency Real- explains the importance of arts organizations in the local sphere, why it is important to understand what is happening in the external environment, and how one’s work is interrelated to community health and vibrancy.

New Orleans changed overnight, without much warning. Most communities have experienced similarly quick shifts and are anticipating others that will manifest on a much slower trajectory. How can we harness our collective creative voice to anticipate and adapt to change, as we experience it, or better yet, before it occurs?


Given my background in urban planning, new funding initiatives that place arts facilities and programs in the context of community-building and neighborhood revitalization always pique my interest. LINC (Leveraging Investments in Community), in partnership with The Ford Foundation, has launched a new program to support the planning and development of new arts spaces called Space for Change. The program is notable for its holistic approach, which embeds planning, community engagement and operational capacity into the fabric of the funded facility projects.  In addition to funds towards planning and development, grant recipients will participate in training seminars in marketing, development, finance and other operational skills. Revitalizing communities through arts spaces is not as simple as renovating or building facilities.  It also involves supporting the ongoing needs of the artists and arts organizations that will inhabit these spaces, especially given the limited capacity of small and mid-sized arts groups to finance and operate facilities. The Space for Change  program is a step towards achieving a more comprehensive strategy of sustainable facility development, and could establish a new model for the sector.


Much of my work at WolfBrown revolves around community cultural and creativity planning.  These processes often take nine months or longer to complete and implementation generally happens over 10 or more years. So being able to engage the cultural sector and a broad spectrum of community leaders - and keep them engaged – is vital to success.  It’s inspiring to me to see how community members are energized by our participatory processes and how leaders can build on that energy over the course of the long years of turning a plan’s vision into reality.  Look, for example, at the Richmond Virginia region, where WolfBrown completed a plan in 2008.  Among an array of important accomplishments, they’ve completely retooled their arts council to lead the implementation process.  In Long Beach, California, where I recently completed an update to the city’s 1996 cultural plan, the City Council has approved five proposals inspired by the plan.  Even in smaller communities, like Lafayette/West Lafayette, Indiana (home of Purdue University), we are seeing some initial action on the plan I completed there barely a year ago.  The work of engaged and passionate community members makes all the difference.


If you follow the field of community arts, you would be hard pressed not to have encountered Arlene Goldbard, who has been engaged in cultural development in its various forms since 1978 as a painter, graphic designer, art director, nonprofit manager, and consultant. Her most recent book New Creative Community provides a valuable, in-depth, and accessible introduction to the field of community cultural development. It offers both a description of the field and a powerful rationale for its value, resonance, and importance in our contemporary world. One of her projects that has particular power at this moment is called Cultural Recovery, an important and ambitious attempt to build coalitions of artists and cultural organizations, as well as such domains as education and social action. Its first initiative would be “… a campaign to create a substantial, sustained public-sector investment in community service programs employing artists and cultural organizations as part of national recovery.”

There is much richness here. Her blog, with entries going back to 2003, provides provocative food for thought. And follow this link to download the discussion paper on Cultural Recovery, well worth a review.

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