People often ask me what it takes to create a cultural district. How hard is it to accomplish? How long does it take? Who should be involved? What do you need to know? As an urban planning consultant specializing in cultural development, I have been involved in a number of cultural district and art-related economic development projects. Here is my list of the ten basic steps to creating a plan for a cultural district and important questions to answer before you even begin. You will find a lot more questions than answers. The challenge and the reward are in finding the right answers to meet your unique needs.
1. Decide why you want to create a cultural district in the first place. What do you hope to accomplish? What problem are you trying to solve? Is there a strong interest in creating such a plan? Are people enthusiastically behind the idea who can offer momentum to help you through this process and then work to implement it successfully?
2. Who should be involved? Who are the key players in town who can offer ideas, energy, resources, and legitimacy for your process? In addition to the obvious leaders, identify hidden assets and talent. Involve the community and key players in your early planning stages.
3. Who will do the work in actually crafting the cultural district plan? Do you have staff, expertise, and partners who can put together the information and creative thinking necessary to develop a viable plan and then carry it out? Do you need to bring in outside expertise or can you tap resources and experience in your community?
4. What is the most logical geographic area for the cultural district to occur? Where are the most compelling areas of activity to serve as a draw for residents and tourists to visit? The site shouldn’t be too small but it definitely shouldn’t be too large. Make it walkable to be most successful (some suggest a ten minute walk from one end to the other).
5. What are the cultural assets within the district boundaries? Identify the cultural organizations, resources, businesses, creative industries, civic groups, educational entities, key social service, financial, religious, and public sector institutions and other resources in the area. What types of cultural programming can occur in the district as a draw for people to visit repeatedly?
6. Do a site analysis of the proposed district. Analyze the streetscape, traffic issues, key buildings, historic and architectural assets, gateways, and opportunities for public art and landscaping improvements. Evaluate other planning, development, and related activities that can reinforce the impact of the proposed cultural district or where the district can support those initiatives.
7. Where are opportunities for public art in the district? Do you want – and can you support – permanent or temporary installations? What site or landscape improvements are needed to support the art? Can you create public art that is integrated with landscape design or public works improvements? Is new development planned for the district where art can be included as part of the initial design process? How will you select the artists and what will you ask them to produce?
8. What will make the cultural district unique and reflect the best of your community? Why should a visitor come to your district (again and again, you hope) as opposed to the hundreds of other districts around the country? How can you market your district and give it a special identity?
9. Once the district plan is completed, who will manage it? Who will take the pride and responsibility of ownership? Who will pay for it? What will it cost? Who will be in charge of coordinating the cultural programming and opportunities for business enterprise and cultural activity collaborations? Who will market the district and let people know about the ever-changing array of activities? Who are your partners and what roles can they play?
10. And finally, what is your strategy to keep the district current? How can you keep it active, lively and relevant? How can you keep it fun and a continued draw for visitors? Make it a place where YOU want to be. Involve the community and diverse, creative partners to help make it successful.