Creative Placemaking— Bridging Communities through the Arts

By Christina Sturdivant on May 1, 2014
Art Walk at old Washington Convention Center site. Photo by Joey Manlapaz, courtesy of the artist.

In cities across the nation, community development has been placed in the hands of a group known to draw crowds through innovation and creativity— artists. Millions of dollars have been invested in the ideas of individuals who are able to bring life and connectivity to neglected spaces.

“The creative placemaking movement is really thinking about arts and culture as the driver for neighborhood revitalization,” says Kimberly Driggins, associate director in the DC Office of Planning. “Placemaking at its best brings out the uniqueness of neighborhood and place and does it in an authentic way.”

The DC Office of Planning’s Revitalization and Design Division engages residents, sister agencies, and the development community to create transformations that render vibrant commercial areas, strong neighborhoods and well-connected public space.

In 2005, one of DC’s first signs of creative placemaking came through the interim use of the 10.2 acre site that once housed the Washington Convention Center at 10th St. between New York Ave. and H St., NW.

“Implicit in creating placemaking is the idea of experimental, unconventional and sometimes temporary places and events,” says Patricia Zingsheim, Associate Director of Revitalization and Design.

Most recognizable at the old convention center site was the art walk, which illuminated works by local artists in three phases. The site was also used to host events like the Downtown Holiday Market in 2005, Cirque du Soleil in 2006 and a month-long tennis tournament that featured Serena Williams and Anna Kournikova in 2008. It was also put to practical use for travelers as a pick-up and drop-off location for the Bolt Bus and a casual gathering space for pedestrians accommodated by benches and lighting.

“That was really a special place in the city for five years when prior to that it had been a very grim area,” says Zingsheim.

Today, Zingsheim has two new projects on her desk that are designed to create long-term enhancements in some of the city’s most disconnected communities.

A nationwide design competition has launched for the creation a park along the downstream span of the 11th Street Bridge. The size of three football fields, the park will hover along the Anacostia River, which has long been a divider between two regions of the city— historic Anacostia to the east and Capitol Hill to the west.

Scott Kratz, came on board in 2011 as a volunteer on the initiative has led over 225 meetings in the past two years for community members and leaders to weigh-in on repurposing the bridge. Today, he is dedicated full-time to the project and has launched a $1 million design competition.

“Everyone has been incredibly enthusiastic,” says Kratz. “They recognize the potential for this new bridge park to link communities and improve public health by creating a safe place for active recreation and to re-engage people with the Anacostia River.”

When completed, the outdoor environmental and recreational incubator will host creative festivals, poetry readings, fashion shows, band performances, plays, street art and more.

“And if we’re really successful,” Kratz continues, “it can be an anchor for economic development.”

Extending beyond a gathering place, the bridge should ignite a complete crossover where families from Ward 8 explore the shops at Eastern Market and the history of the Navy Yard and patrons of Ward 6 explore the art scene of Anacostia and the heritage East-of-the-River.

The division’s second competition addresses another missing link in many of DC’s communities— opportunities for play. Working in alliance with community leaders and residents, the division held a submission process to identify areas with the most need for play—where conventional play stations had not been possible because of lack of public land or there were no kids there historically but now families are moving in.

“Play is a very important part of the neighborhood and we need to find places to accommodate it,” says Zingsheim.

This summer, artists will submit designs combining art, place and play that are anything but conventional. Not only will the playground designs cater to children and parents, but individuals will  be able to stroll by the art and catch an impulse to be playful.

“Currently, play environments are formulaic—you order from a catalogue some type of play set and they all look very much the same,” says Zingsheim. “What we’re looking at bringing artistry and creativity to make the playgrounds unique.”

As creativity spawns greater creativity, Zingsheim hopes that projects like the 11th Street Bridge Park and DC Playable Art will transform communities in a way that is individually catered to the culture of the environment.

“They’ll embody something special about the neighborhoods that make one neighborhood distinct from another so they’ll feel local in that way, which I think is really important,” she says.

In the bigger picture, they should generate business for local restaurants, shops and centers bringing both economic and community-oriented transactions.