In reading my fellow bloggers’ posts, I was thinking about the different sets of strategies used to interest and involve community members in the short-term (what we might call “one-offs”), and those used to cultivate engagement in the long-term.
The potential of art to involve community in the shorter term is well-documented and recognized. We recognize the value of performance and temporary public art in activating public space during large (and small) community events.
Art is also recognized as an important communication tool, a way to get across a complex message that might otherwise be technical or seem far removed from daily life. Creative processes can even be used to diffuse conflict and create the space for dialogue.
Urban planners and designers have also integrated creative, interactive activities into the charrette workshop model. This week I attended a lecture and workshop at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY, led by James Rojas on his interactive, art-based technique of using semi-abstract models and moving pieces to involve community members in reimagining and redesigning urban spaces.
The materials used were simple—blocks, string, plastic toys—but the colors and shapes clearly activated different parts of the participants’ brains, and encouraged new ideas and solutions—even among a crowd of planning and architecture students that is used to addressing urban design issues every day.
It is important to note that Rojas’ workshops and interactive installations happen within a community context, usually with institutional or organizational partners with existing connections to the local community. While this sort of workshop strategy may only be used with the same group of constituents or youth once or twice, it is part of an organization’s longer-term engagement strategy.
This begs the question: how do we move from these instances of creative community engagement to the “What’s next?” part of the conversation?
How can one-time involvement be leveraged to create longer-term engagement and engage community members who are not just participants but are leaders and advocates?
Short-term participation can lead to longer-term civic engagement if utilized as part of a multifaceted strategy:
- Being invited into a process—even for just a day or a couple hours—can help an individual to reimagine their place within a process. Moreover, this invitation involves recognition—of values, of cultures, or forms of working and being together in the world. This is related to Brendan Greaves’ idea that creative engagement can be a methodology, with lasting impact before, during, and after the engagement of artists and community members. Repetitive short-term participation creates a history of a process, and upends narratives of disengagement
- Relationship-building is core to long-term engagement. This has to happen both formally (meetings and committee work) and informally (parties and casual conversations in the street), and, to ensure sustainability, both personal and institutional.
- Community cannot be cultivated without recognizing self-interest. Why might an individual or group by interested in returning? What are their values, their objectives, and personal interests? What are the barriers to participation, and how might those be addressed? Recognizing these barriers often involves taking a holistic approach, beyond the issue or project at hand.
To bring it back to the core theme of this Blog Salon, placemaking is not just about activating a place for a single day, or engaging a community for a single workshop.
Placemaking, like meaningful civic participation, must be sustained. A community must be strong, healthy, and in dialogue with each other in order to sustain a vibrant, viable place.