Association of American Geographers 2016. Conference report (Part 1)


by Dr. Steve Millington

San Francisco, USA. 29th March 2016: Creative Place Making

Cara Courage (University of Brighton) and Anita McKeown (SMARTLAB, Dublin) organised two sessions entitled Creative Placemaking and beyond: continuing and reinvigorating the arts-led conversation to provide some timely reflection on the role of artists involved in community place making activities.  From a place management perspective, artists present an enticing package, offering creative practices and skills that might help practitioners address some thorny issues such as social cohesion or a lack of a strong place identity. 

There is concern, however, about the impact, if any, of artists parachuting into local neighbourhoods to do a particular project, before quickly leaving.  Local people perhaps end of up having art done to them, whether they want it or want.  What scope is there for artists to develop genuinely collaborative approaches with communities, that result in projects that satisfy the needs of both, rather than just fulfilling the agenda of the artist or their funders.

Temporary interventions align with equally evocative notions of Tactical Urbanism or pop-up culture.  Although such interventions might start a conversation within local communities about the future of their place, to what extent can this lead to their empowerment?   To what extent do the local small scale interventions stack up in terms of long term planning for change?  Above all is the spectre of gentrification, with the fear that successful arts led projects simply unleash a wave property speculation leading to the displacement of both artists and communities.

For more information about Cara Courage and Anita McKeown:

These sessions, therefore, brought together a range of academics and artists connected by their shared interest in collaborative practice.  Not all the case studies they presented are successes, indeed some were outright failures.  Nevertheless, these experiences reveal both practical and conceptual problems in developing effective arts-led community place-making interventions.

Torange Khonsari (London Metropolitan University) is the founder of London based arts and architectural collaboration Public Works Group. She contends that highly programmed temporary architecture might encourage more than leisure, to become sites of sociality and renewed public sphere. She discusses a multi-functional open space platform constructed under London’s Westway – a mobile structure to allow space and time for the articulation of local voices and needs, from the communities divided by this piece of infrastructure. However, the short term presence of this project, perhaps undermined its effectiveness in mobilising sustained community organisation.  This experience, however, informs a longer term project – 3-4 year INTERACT Project – in East London – a citizen led high street initiative.  Created in a redundant open space, the project offers a public frontage showcasing knowledge and information about the local area.  Inside this open space a temporary shelter serves as a ‘Living Room’ to host community meetings and discussions.  The project also involves the mapping of community and civic infrastructure, uses along the high street, plus interviews, walks and school engagement within the local community – to develop an alternative development model in an area of London subject to rising property prices and the spectre of gentrification.  Importantly the project established a Neighbourhood Forum to provide an on-going framework to support on-going community action, in this case, orientated around a sustainable high street. For more information:

Peter Rundkvist  (City of Gothenburg) and Michael Landzelius (University of Gothenburg) outlined the difficulties in developing a social cohesion programme within a peri-urban settlement.  The Gothenburg Development North East programme (2011-13) focuses on the municipality of Angered, a planned suburban settlement developed in the 1960s on the outskirts of the city in a largely rural area.  The original plan is based on modernist planning principles and involves the fusing of functionalist housing integrated with open space.  Despite a target population of 300,000 only 50,000 people currently reside in this area.  Economically the area is lagging with youth unemployment (12%) the highest in the city.  There is a perception that this area also suffers in terms of quality and use of public space.  The GDNE project involved promoting sustainable development in Angered through entrepreneurship, creativity and cultural policy in attempt to generate greater social cohesion and public participation in decision making.  The partial success of the programme reflects the problems in translating national cultural policy objectives into a meaningful strategy within particular localities.  With respect to Angered, the town’s peripheral location and de-densified semi urban-rural character, are factors beyond the control of the decision-makers, suggesting the need perhaps for collaborative community driven strategy.

Margo Handwerker’s (UCLA) research concerns place-making in rural areas.  Her main argument is that the application of cultural policy in a rural context often reproduces romanticized understandings of community life, an idyllic picture of communities working together.  However, stereotyping the rural in this way serves to marginalise or hide conflict and exclusions.   Drawing on broader policy ideas such as The Next Generation (, Margo outlined here with the group M12 to explain how they have developed collaborative social practice associated with rural settlement.  The US context is important, with the National Endowment for the Art offering special provision for creative place-making, but requiring artists to collaborate with local non-profit community organisations.

For more information:

M12 |

Lisa Alphahalo (UCL) provided an interesting case study in failure.  The Outros espacos (Outer Spaces) Project is located in the Beja Housing Estate (Portugal), a former industrial era, the public housing estate was constructed in the 1970s.  Open space here is poorly maintained.  The project, therefore, was designed to address perceived community apathy or lack of engagement in plans to redevelop open spaces, by giving a voice to local residents prior to the submission of regeneration proposals.  However, the artists encountered numerous obstacles to engaging the community in place making. Ultimately, Lisa warns artists who might enter a community with lofty ideals, about understanding the place first and working with the community to understanding their needs.

For more information:

Stephen Pritchard (Northumbria University), offered a critical perspective on place making, to entertain the possibilities for place guarding, the alignment of place making with more direct political objectives.  He is concerned about the complicity of artists in reproducing wider development goals of local political and property elites, whereby cultural policy might be used to as a gateway to gentrification.  He refers to the Hamburg based Park Fiction as a successful example of community mobilisation.


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