In a small town in Minnesota, residents with children kept clamoring for a splash pad, but they were having trouble gaining traction for the idea with decision makers. So one day one of the fathers, an artist, pulled out his tools and began to gather supplies: PVC pipes, garden hoses, lawn chairs. He created a pop-up splash pad, complete with spraying fountains and adjacent seating for caregivers, and debuted it at a popular community park. It was an instant hit. Families flocked to the fun. And while the splash pad issue did not get resolved, one citizen exercising his creativity and agency was able to open new possibilities in the community’s imagination.

This is just one example of what’s called “creative placemaking.” Projects like this, citizen-driven and emerging from community needs, are becoming an important part of the artistic landscape in many rural places across the country.

“Though the movement towards creative placemaking is relatively new, the idea is not,” says Michele Anderson with Springboard for the Arts. “It is part of human history to shape the places we live to reflect our values.”

The Origins of Creative Placemaking

The term creative placemaking was coined around 2007 and is about more than economic development or having a vibrant arts scene. It is about creatively envisioning and shaping a shared community future, and recognizing that the arts can aid a community in solving problems, building relationships, and forming culture. Artists become facilitators and healers, helping people tap into their own creativity.

This localized innovation work was championed early on by ArtPlace America, a 10-year collaboration of foundations, federal agencies, and financial institutions that ended in 2020. By encouraging partnerships between artists, government, and civic groups — as well as injecting funding — they played a vital role in positioning arts and culture as a core part of equitable community planning and development.

Many aspects of development can fall under the creative placemaking umbrella. Projects might address any number of local goals or priorities, including downtown revitalization, critical infrastructure (including broadband), environmental stewardship, entrepreneurship and economic development, public safety, housing, transportation, historic preservation, education, racial healing and equity, community identity and communal gathering spaces, or any combination of these.

The variety in creative placemaking is inherent in its premise: each community is unique, and so are its opportunities, dreams, resources, solutions, and strategies. To that end, practitioners who have used these tools in their communities have all developed their own independent language for what creative placemaking means to them.

Honoring History in the Arizona Desert

In the midst of the Sonoran Desert sits the town of Ajo, Arizona, adjacent to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and about two hours southwest of Phoenix. It is essentially a company town — or it was until its copper mine closed in the 1980s.

Ajo is the meeting place for three nations — the Tohono O’odham Nation, Mexico, and the United States — and it has a generational history of segregation and institutional racism. 

Ajo, AZ, population 3,700

One of the community’s first initiatives in what they call “creative placekeeping” was collecting the stories of those who grew up in former Indian and Mexican towns.

With help from the International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA), Ajo now features remembrances of residents from demolished neighborhoods at a city park public art installation and in a published book.

Creative Placekeeping is a thoughtful and intentional re-imagining of shared spaces in the natural and built environment. Led by artists and culture bearers, it’s aimed at adapting to changing conditions and opportunities in a way that unpacks and honors the shared memories imbued into those environments.” – Ajo, AZ

“We have found the disarming power of the arts to be a critically important element in revisiting a challenging history and unpacking historic trauma in a way that promotes healing rather than re-traumatization,” says Aaron Cooper, Executive Director of the ISDA.

Through creative placekeeping, the community also identified one of their most treasured resources: three Spanish Mission-style buildings that comprise the center of town. These unique architectural structures hold deep communal meaning as the former schools and company store, meeting places for all residents. The residents of Ajo invited the ISDA to participate in a redevelopment project, aligned with the community’s values and desires.

The historic Curley School was restored to create a living and working space for artists, laying the foundation for a strong creative economy. The old elementary school has been renovated into an Inn and Conference Center, with gardens designed by local youth and handiwork provided by area artisans. And the former company store now surrounds a central plaza and remains the center of community life. It is being converted to small business storefronts.  

The ISDA led the effort to renovate the Spanish Mission-style Curley School into studios where artists live and work (Photo courtesy of the International Sonoran Desert Alliance).

As the community of Ajo strengthens their post-extractive economy and communal fabric, one of the challenges remains finding consensus among such a diverse populace. They have adopted guiding principles that aim to strike a balance between remembering the past and making space for a changing future. The first principle says there are special places that should be preserved just as they are. The second defines blighted properties as places primed for creativity and a new vision. And the third gives special consideration to places at the intersection of these criteria.

At the Street Art Happening, muralists from around the world gather to contribute vibrant murals in Ajo, AZ, organized by the Sonoran Community Arts Collective and co-hosted by ISDA (Photo courtesy of ISDA).

Cooper shares an example of that special consideration. A group of creatives began a mural fest and transformed many dead alleys in town, achieving one of the highest per capita mural rates in the world. But as walls filled up and murals moved closer to the historic downtown, community members expressed concern. The thoughtful solution that resulted was bringing in a professional muralist, who took the memory project book and created a respectful and creative work of art that speaks of the community.

As Cooper points out, “Resistance to change is very often fueled by a deep love and pride in place. Pride and love of community is never a bad thing and, with the right process and support, can provide a strong foundation for future growth.”

Connecting Culture and Agriculture in Mississippi

Carlton Turner has eight generations of roots in Utica, a low- to moderate-income, predominantly Black rural community. He has a background in socially-engaged performing arts and today practices community development work with Sipp Culture, the Mississippi Center for Cultural Production. Sipp Culture’s work weaves together development, local agriculture, and storytelling.

Utica, MS, population 878

Sipp Culture has helped the local community reimagine possibilities and reframe realities. After purchasing an abandoned building in the heart of downtown, they engaged with residents in a dreaming exercise. By asking what Utica could be, they formed a vision of their shared future.

Community members in Utica, MS dream about their future in a process facilitated by Sipp Culture (Photo by Griff Griffin).

They also looked at their past and present. Utica has a long and storied history of agriculture with ties to cotton, industrial farms, and George Washington Carver. Working the land runs in the lineage of almost every family. But today, the community is in a food apartheid, a term recognizing that the inequality of food access runs along racial and ethnic lines. The issue is exacerbated in many rural communities like Utica.

Comprehensive Community Cultural Development is working to identify community values; build systems that are consistent with those values; and shape community culture in ways that are beneficial to everyone.” – Utica, MS

While food access is deeply embedded in their history and was identified as part of their shared dream, the usual narrative used to be limited to, “We need a grocery store.” Sipp Culture is challenging that limited thinking by developing local food systems.

One of the first steps has been using food memory as a tool to envision a common food future. They are training community members to be storytellers. “Gathering stories leads to a nuanced conversation about what is happening with food,” says Turner. Hand in hand, they are developing opportunities in local agriculture through a small farm apprenticeship program and plans for a greenhouse.

Their storytelling work is expanding into the Rural Performance/Production Lab, or RPPL (pronounced “RiPPLe”), which seeks to support the development of new multimedia work rooted in rural living, history, places, and people. The intent is that artists will create a ripple effect as catalysts for broad community change. Sipp Culture will offer direct funding, a residency, and coaching from a team of professional advisors.

“Economic development is important but endowed with issues and challenges,” says Turner. “Development of culture needs to happen first.”

Pride of Place in Western Minnesota

The organization Springboard for the Arts exists primarily to support artists. But they also help bring artists’ creativity to bear in towns and neighborhoods, through a strategy they call “creative people power.”

“Creativity is a natural resource in every community,” says Michele Anderson. “But citizens need an infrastructure to tap into their own people power. Success is when people become attached to the community and act as stewards of their place.”

Fergus Falls, MN, population 13,450

Springboard has developed a four-part framework for implementing creative people power in communities. It goes like this: First, support artists to make a living. Second, have artists at the table, especially in community engagement. Third, make hubs and homes for creativity.

The fourth element is called “lots of little,” which focuses on creating many smaller projects instead of one major project. The “little” side of the equation lowers the risk for community partners and makes it easier for rural locales to adopt things within their budget constraints. The “lots”side makes it possible to invite more community ideas and creators into the process. They’ve found higher potential for transformation with many people in the community having the opportunity to participate over time.

Creative People Power is a framework for combining creativity-centered and people-centered development to build strong, healthy, and resilient communities.” – Fergus Falls, MN

In their rural home base in Fergus Falls, Springboard developed a “Year of Play” initiative to respond to the all too common, negative narrative of a “dying town.” One of their biggest “little” successes in that effort was a drag show coordinated by younger residents called the Catwalk Party. The community members invited professional drag queens and had more than 100 residents attend the event staged at a local restaurant (note, this was before the pandemic). The event was a safe space for LGBTQ+ community members and an accessible way for other residents of the community to support them.

Ms. Lexi D’s Catwalk Party in Fergus Falls, organized by DomFreq productions (Photo by Eric Santwire).

Anderson and her team have used the “lots of little” strategy in eleven other Minnesota small towns in collaboration with Rethos: Places Reimagined. Across the state, the “Artists on Main Street” program supports downtown main street organizations as they learn how to best collaborate with artists.

In Willmar, MN local residents led 13 different projects, including a photography exhibit, an outdoor sitting area, a sewing group, and a community picnic. Art students at Willmar High imaginatively looked at cracked streets and places in disrepair and painted them into art installations. Town leaders now anticipate using artists to help reach out to residents on other city issues, like the upcoming revision of the city’s comprehensive plan.

“It is so important that people take the lead to create what they want in the community,” says Anderson. “We ask the town leadership to try to get to a yes with every project. We have seen how projects they are skeptical about at first can generate the biggest impact.”

Getting Creative with Civic Engagement in Washington State

Rural resident Mary Welcome defines herself as an artist-organizer. As a multidisciplinary cultural worker, she has found a way outside of the traditional career path for artists, focused on commercial galleries or educational institutions. Her artistic endeavors are rooted in community engagement and the development of intersectional programming that addresses equity, cultural advocacy, inclusivity, visibility, and imagination.

Palouse, WA, population 998

Welcome especially enjoys working with very small communities of less than 1,000 like her own where she can get to know many residents.

“As a rural resident myself, it is quicker to get oriented,” she says. “I have a certain kinship with them and understand what it means to be remote and resourceful. I spend less time gawking than a more urban-based artist.”

Welcome was chosen as one of two artists-in-residence for the Washington State Department of Transportation in 2019. While cities have a long history of embedded artists, this was the first time in the nation a statewide agency had implemented the strategy. “In a residency with a civic agency, they bring in a beginner, unskilled in the trade, to help with creative problem solving,” says Welcome.

Collaborative Community Engagement is the artistic practice of nurturing and cultivating the existing spirit of a place.” – Palouse, WA

She and collaborator Kelly Gregory conducted conversational research for three months, talking with employees in all levels and departments for more than 600 hours. Out of those conversations, they developed creative projects that fostered culture and communication between staff, like a transportation social club and a photo gallery in their office.

As the residency entered pandemic conditions, the pair became even more creative. They developed the Maintenance Post, a hyper-local publication focused on the smallest road maintenance crew with the largest land area in eastern Washington. The publication combined historical information, colorful quotes, and day-in-the-life stories and pictures about the crew’s work and was distributed to people throughout the service area. The intent was to celebrate the crew as hometown heroes. As stated in the publication, it “connects the traveling public to the often-invisible labor of maintenance workers. The Maintenance Post humanizes the people-powered process of stewarding our shared transportation network.”

Artist-in-Residence Mary Welcome created this hyper-local newspaper “The Maintenance Post” for the Washington State Department of Transportation (Photo by Mary Welcome).

In 2020, Welcome saw much of her other scheduled work cancelled. She saw it as an opportunity to collaborate with other folks in her home of Palouse, WA, a small town on the state’s eastern border with Idaho. They set up an emergency resource line for connecting neighbors as well as a socially-distanced anti-racist multimedia group. They made a point of making activities available via phone and other means beyond the internet so all community members could participate.

Collaborators also founded the Palouse Christmas Cheer and Holiday Spirit Committee. They offered an array of socially-distanced holiday community events — like Zoom caroling — with the World-Famous Palouse All-Town Christmas Parade as the capstone. Citizens were invited to either be in the parade with a decorated car or camp out on their front porches to watch the show. Seasonal music was broadcast on the low-frequency radio station a local church had recently set up for its services during the pandemic. The motorcade drove down every street in town. It was an unqualified success.

Welcome is grateful she has been able to use her skills at home throughout this time. “I find it very fulfilling to be an asset to the community fabric here when we really needed creative solutions.”

Creativity is Everywhere – How to Harness Creative Placemaking in your Community

For anyone inspired by these stories, these creative placemaking practitioners encourage rural leaders to look at a diversity of funding sources that could support their community’s creative vision.

In many cases, the local government can support some initial small projects. Area artists are often ready to lend their expertise to projects in a number of different areas, whether it’s marketing, economic development, or tourism. And several national entities earmark funds for this kind of work, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Placemaking Innovation Challenge and the National Endowment for the Arts’ Our Town grants.

Recent legislation like the American Rescue Plan may also open up more opportunities and funding availability for community development projects in the year ahead. And Springboard for the Arts, where Michele Anderson works, is inviting applications for a new Rural Regenerator Fellowship, which will provide a $10,000 stipend to creative rural leaders in the Upper Midwest.

Whatever the sources of funding or support, the experiences of these four towns show that creative placemaking has a unique role to play in building strong rural communities and helping them think in aspirational terms.

“Rural communities are in the midst of so many transitions,” says Anderson. “If we don’t have the opportunity to learn each others’ stories, to connect as humans, it is hard to imagine and create a future that works for all of us.”