The Transformational Power of the Arts in Community Revitalization

Have you ever wondered how to turn a weakness in your community into something positive? Well-known examples include the Rails to Trails program, resulting in exceptional projects like the Highline in NYC, adaptive reuse of abandoned buildings and creating recreational facilities on former brownsfield.  Even in the absence of those particular kinds of opportunities, neighborhoods can also benefit greatly by harnessing the creative power and energy of artists to turn deficits into assets. Artists have often been the urban pioneers that lead to the resurgence of an area. Now, cities and neighborhoods are taking engagement of the arts community even further by actively involving them in developing improvement strategies.

I got the opportunity to see one example of this kind of transformation first-hand on a spring trip to Miami, FL when I toured the Wynwood Arts District. It’s located in a warehouse district that once was filled with empty buildings and has now been slowly turned into one of the world’s largest open-air street-art installations. The area is home to more than 70 art galleries, retail and antique shops and bars, restaurants and cafes. Murals of all different themes, colors and styles delight visitors at every turn, resulting in a desire to continue around “just one more corner” and rewarding those who do. The neighborhood’s vibe is laid-back and friendly, and it is a popular place for guided and impromptu tours in addition to numerous publicized events. You can see some photos on our Pinterest page here:

The change in Wynwood is not without some controversy; there are concerns that low-income residents have been pushed out as the area improves, leading to an important question: how do we improve communities for the people that live there now, rather than those who may come in the future? One way to help ensure that the artists themselves aren’t forced to leave is to pay a fair price for their work. Other approaches include ramping up efforts to build or renovate long-term affordable housing and investing in local schools to strengthen education opportunities.

Let us know what you’re doing in your communities and neighborhoods to engage artists in your revitalization efforts and how you’re staving off the negative aspects of gentrification that often force long-term residents to relocate because the neighborhood is no longer affordable. We’d love to highlight your great work in our next blog!

If you’re in the Chicago area and want to try this kind of transformation on a smaller scale, check out Metropolitan Planning Council’s placemaking challenge, “Old Places, New Tricks.” They are challenging organizations to activate a public space in the community for one day – August 15, 16 or 17. Click here for more info!