Artists and creative organizations are becoming increasingly more engaged in what is the traditional terrain of urban planners and local politicians—from local neighborhood planning, to revitalization projects, and even real estate development.
Engagement of the creative community in local planning issues not only increases the relevance of and helps to create broader bases of support for artists and arts organizations; it also ensures that the city planning policies enacted are sustainable, responsive to community needs, and perhaps more effective in the long-run.
One area of urban politics and economic development that is being tackled by creative institutions and local artists is waterfront revitalization. Because of the large public and institutional investments needed to accomplish projects of this magnitude, waterfront revitalization has typically been a city government-led effort.
However, in the face of limited public resources, citizens, grassroots organizations, and local institutions are taking the lead in re-imagining how their rivers and waterways can be used. This form of city re-development is more socially and environmentally just, equitably shared, and creatively implemented.
The arts have played a crucial role in the re-envisioning of these waterfronts, and the community-based process of reuse is both effective and sustainable. This community-driven process is perhaps most significant, as the tension with redevelopment is that local residents and vibrant cultural activities are at risk of easy displacement.
In Providence, RI, the Steel Yard is an industrial arts organization in the industrial Valley neighborhood that has been a leader in the creative revitalization of the Woonasquatucket River and surrounding community. The Steel Yard transformed a vacated and contaminated industrial site into a functioning workspace for local artists, educational space for students of all ages, and a outdoor community performance and exhibition space.
Further upriver, the Olneyville Housing Corporation (OHC) not only develops affordable housing in a predominantly low-income and Latino neighborhood, but also has co-led (with the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council), the revival of Riverside Park, which now features a community garden, a playground with equipment built by the Steel Yard, and a greenway—along with a summer performance series and many other community events organized by OHC.
The 51-mile Los Angeles River is hidden and, thus, forgotten about by many Angelenos. Fellow urban planner John Arroyo recently completed a comprehensive study of improving access to the waterfront through arts and cultural activities as his Master’s thesis.
Arroyo was amazed by the number of artists and arts organizations who were creating projects on the river’s edge, and decided to not only comprehensively document these projects but also assess the impact these often ad-hoc and temporary art projects have in helping adjacent residents (from mostly low-income communities) to reimagine the river.
From projects organized by institutions, such as Cornerstone Theater’s the Touch the Water, A River Play, to independent artists’ projects such as Orameh Bagheri’s LA Yellow Box participatory poetry, Arroyo comments that “all of these projects keep a cultural heritage alive, and enable a process of waiting and listening.”
Artists have helped to draw attention to the communities that have always been along the river, and have enabled their participation in rethinking what the river can be for them. Arroyo has recently been working with the Los Angeles Urban Rangersto lead guided explorations of the river – check out a video of one of their tours:
Here in New York City, creative industrial revitalization is happening along the Newtown Creek, a highly polluted waterway recently designated as a federal Superfund site. The Greenpoint Manufacturing Design Center (GMDC), a nonprofit developer of industrial space, is working closely with local manufacturers, artists, and residents to create a community plan for the remediation and reuse of brownfields along the creek as part of a New York State Brownfield Opportunity Area (BOA) grant.
GMDC also collaborated with the Center for Urban Pedagogy to design a highly visual and interactive brochure to illustrate the concept of brownfield redevelopment and the BOA program for local stakeholders. GMDC’s approach to development is unique, in that the creative process is a valid economic development activity and one that can create an accessible and vibrant working waterfront.
Together, these projects demonstrate that community-wide planning and development happens most effectively when led by local communities—with public support. Moreover, the arts can serve to engage communities; activate spaces and places with public art, music, and performances; and reinvigorate the spirit of these waterfront communities.
Where do you see artists, arts organizations, and community-based institutions reusing waterfronts—or other challenged public spaces—in creative ways? How is the arts community showing leadership in the just and equitable revitalization of your city?