So, what is ‘Creative Placemaking?’

Caitlin Wallace, INSPIRE Graduate with Dumfries and Galloway Council

Dumfries and Galloway Council are a strategic partner of What We Do Now and have been working closely with the project to understand the opportunities within Creative Placemaking for community-led planning and development, specifically as a tool for communities to develop their own Place Plans*. Caitlin Wallace has been interviewing artists and Place Hubs about their projects and Creative Placemaking approach to working within their communities. *In Scotland Local Place Plans give communities more statutory power in that all new Local Development Plans put together by local authorities will need to consider any registered Local Place Plans in their proposals.


Over the past year, I have been working with Dumfries and Galloway Council as an INSPIRE Graduate…but what exactly does it mean to be an INSPIRE Graduate? Well, this is something I also wondered about. A quick Google search will tell you that the definition of ‘Inspire’ is ‘to fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.’ It is the last part of the definition that stood out to me: the ability to motivate someone to ‘do something creative.’ I’ve always been quite a creative person and, consequently, the role of ‘INSPIRE Graduate’ seemed to be an ideal fit for me…but I was still sceptical, I was going to be working for the Council after all. How creative can you get surrounded by boring people in dull grey suits?

On my first day with the Council, there was a distinct lack of grey suits. I was ‘virtually’ introduced to Jamie Ferguson, the Community Development and Empowerment Manager, who I was going to be working alongside. Jamie told me that I would be helping with Place Planning Development. Though this might sound a bit technical, ‘Place Planning’ simplified is when a community comes together to discuss how they want their neighbourhood to look and feel. My role would be to help to develop our Council’s approach and understanding of the concept of ‘Place’. But this whole ‘Place’ business was new to me and so, I went back to my trusty friend Google. Typing in ‘Place + Dumfries and Galloway’ and hitting enter, I was met with thousands of responses to click through with each new webpage sending me down a rabbit’s warren of hyperlinks. This is when I re-discovered The Stove Network.

I visited the Stove Network on a school trip a few years ago. All I remember is the sound of stamping feet and a microphone in my face. I was confused. What did this arty place where I had once performed a badly written SLAM poem have to do with ‘Place’?

The Stove Network identifies as an arts and community project and their Facebook page writes they ‘see the arts, not as something solely for an ‘arts audience’, but rather, as a vital contribution to society on all fronts.’ For the Stove, the arts are not a frivolous pastime but an effective medium for both physical and social change. The Stove dubs the use of arts and culture for community-led change as ‘Creative Placemaking’, but what exactly does this mean?

‘Creative Placemaking’ has often been described as something of a ‘fuzzy concept’ as the definition seems to vary from person to person. When you hear the word ‘creative’ or ‘art’, your mind automatically goes to painting or drawing pretty pictures and doesn’t quite seem to fit with the somewhat technical sounding ‘Place Planning’. Perhaps, the easier question to ask was where is ‘Creative Placemaking’ happening? And so, supported by Jamie, I got in touch with Matt and Katharine at The Stove. Matt and Katharine told me about the What We Do Now (WWDN) Project. WWDN is something of an experiment in ‘Creative Placemaking’ that is happening across the region, bringing together artists and communities to imagine new possibilities for their places. The concept of this project intrigued Jamie and me. Sensing learning from this project that would benefit our ‘Place’ development work, I started to make connections with Community Workers, Council Officers and the Stove’s artists based in the five main towns where WWDN was taking place.

With each conversation, I sought to find an answer to the question: ‘What is Creative Placemaking?’ After hours and hours of interviews, and hours and hours of transcribing, I collated all my interview responses into a huge spreadsheet. Then from condensing the responses, and condensing them again, I came to several conclusions about ‘Creative Placemaking’:

Creative Placemaking is…

Community-led

In each of my conversations, my interviewees stressed how crucial it was for the community to be at the centre of ‘Creative Placemaking’. One of the WWDN artists explained that, though they can emerge themselves in a community, it’s ultimately ‘their place, not my place,’ adding ‘they know it, they’re experts.’ Hence, when it comes to any kind of placemaking, ‘creative’ or otherwise, in order for a community to believe and invest in the project, it has to reflect their needs and aspirations. The role of the artist simply to creatively facilitate and enable the wider community to lead the charge.

Reactive and Responsive

‘It’s very process-led when you’re working with the community,’ one of the artists told me, ‘you have to react to things and respond to things a lot as well as be proactive.’ Consequently, ‘Creative Placemaking’ is designed to be adaptable and flexible, whether this is as simple as adjusting timings for events or the location of venues so more members of the community can get involved or reconfiguring the focus of the project. Instead of working towards a pre-established end goal or brief, ‘Creative Placemaking’ actively reacts and responds to the voices of the community and is much more fluid in its ambitions than traditional community projects.

Engaging

‘Creative Placemaking’ differs greatly from more standard methods of engagement. Though online and paper surveys can be an effective means of engagement, they are often uninspiring and dull to complete. Though the traditional drop-in sessions in the community hall can be a good way to engage people face-to-face, some find such events to be intimidating or even uninviting. ‘Creative Placemaking’ on the other hand brings fun into community engagement, breaking down barriers and drawing people in with arty activities like printing workshops, ceramic classes, and photography lessons. One artist explained how such workshops behave almost as ‘icebreakers’, enabling the community ‘to interact with you and meet you’ and begin a conversation.

Ambitious

‘Creative Placemaking’ is ambitious in its way of thinking. It encourages people to look beyond what is in front of them and to seek new possibilities for innovative change in their community. One community worker voiced how, especially with being from a small town, oftentimes our vision can be smaller, bringing in an external influence can bring a whole other perspective to a community and help them ‘to see what is possible.’ Artists, or ‘Creative Placemakers’ more accurately, play a key role in this process, encouraging communities to be ambitious in their plans for their community.

Transformative

A good ‘Creative Placemaking’ project should drive lasting change in the community, whether that be physical change through making and creating new community spaces, improving underused green spaces or concrete areas, and saving derelict buildings or social change by growing capacity within the community, teaching residents new employable and useful skills. Though it is difficult to say what overall influence WWDN has had on the 5 towns at this stage, one artist explained how even over the past couple of months, they have ‘seen significant changes in the lives and the outputs’ of the young people they have been supporting.  They went on to say, ‘there were individuals who came to us with no confidence whatsoever’ who are now applying to Universities and Colleges with ambitions to become creative professionals.  

Imaginative

Oftentimes, when ‘placemaking’, something will pop up in the way and try to stop the change from happening. Instead of simply accepting no as an answer, ‘Creative Placemaking’ encourages communities to think outside of the box and to come up with creative solutions. A community worker in one of the 5 WWDN towns explained to me how, when faced with an obstacle or a barrier, their community is now asking ‘how do we get past this?’ and are looking for creative solutions in partnership with the artists in their place, asking ‘so, if we can’t do that…what if we do this?’

Vibrant

Unexcited and dull spaces are brought to life through ‘Creative Placemaking.’ The WWDN project shows how, with a bit of imagination, ordinary places can be transformed into exciting and vibrant community spaces: a field can become an outdoor cinema, a shipping container can become an arts centre, or an old warehouse can become an indoor parkour playground.

Empowering

A Community Worker voiced how the ‘Creative Placemakers’ based in their community have ‘provoked the inner activist in people.’ They went on to describe how those living in the neighbourhood are now excited about the changes happening to their place. The local people are beginning to see the effects of ‘Creative Placemaking’ and are motivated to play an active role in this process. The community has been empowered to use their voice and to ensure that it is heard.

So, what have I learned from embarking on this research? The eagle-eyed among you might have realised if you put together the letter of each of my conclusions, it spells out the word ‘CREATIVE’. Perhaps a somewhat obvious conclusion, but an important one, nonetheless. ‘Creative Placemaking’ is designed to be ‘creative’. It’s a different way of working with communities, an approach that goes against the status quo and breaks away from traditional top-down engagement methods. With ‘Creative Placemaking’, it is the community who are at the centre of the process and the driving force behind it. It doesn’t have a set final goal or ambition, instead being shaped by the community as the project progresses. People are more engaged by ‘Creative Placemaking’ with its clever combination of fun imaginative workshops and consultation. Such sessions stimulate ambitious ideas in community members, transforming boring, underused community spaces into imaginative and vibrant spaces to be shared and enjoyed by all. But above all, ‘Creative Placemaking’ empowers all those involved, filling them with the urge to do something or feel something for their community, especially something creative. And so, ‘Creative Placemaking’ can be summarised in one word…INSPIRING.  

Caitlin is currently working on producing a report on ‘Creative Placemaking’ as part of her role as an INSPIRE Graduate. This will likely be published in Spring of 2023.


*In Scotland Local Place Plans give communities more statutory power in that all new Local Development Plans put together by local authorities will need to consider any registered Local Place Plans in their proposals.