What is Creative Placemaking? An Expert Explains

Updated on January 2, 2024 by Meg Pier

Haven't heard of the term creative placemaking? It may just be the answer to the United Nations' urgent call to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. That objective is one of the U.N.'s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by all its members in 2015. With the world population ever-expanding, SDG 11 seeks to galvanize urban planning so that our communities are affordable, green, inclusive places where we can connect.

The U.N. declared 2021 as "The International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development”. Creative placemaking is an emerging strategy and process that will be at the heart of how this priority fulfills its potential. Placemaking first came into the public consciousness in the 1960s, when academics, activists and urban planners began shaping a dialogue about the quality of life in urban areas.

In 2011, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) took that conversation to another level with a study about the use of art and culture to make communities more user-friendly. The NEA is at the forefront of the creative placemaking movement in the U.S., where Jen Hughes is director of Design and Creative Placemaking. Since 2011, she has fulfilled multiple roles as a design specialist and community solutions specialist at the NEA. Previously, Jen was an urban planner for the District of Columbia and has held communications and business consulting positions in the private sector.

People Are Culture’s Creative Economy Spotlight Series features interviews with a cross-section of leading innovators in the arts, culture, and entrepreneurial realms who share their take on how creative industries can serve as a catalyst for growth and wellbeing. Not surprisingly, there is a far-reaching and wide-ranging set of perspectives. The common denominator? A strong sense of optimism in the power of the creative spirit.

We invite you to share your point of view in a comment!

Jen Hughes, Design and Creative Placemaking Director,

National Endowment for the Arts, U.S.

Jen Hughes - Courtesy of the National Endowment for the Arts
Jen Hughes - Courtesy of the National Endowment for the Arts

Defining Creative Economy and Creative Placemaking

Meg: How do you define a “creative economy”?

Jen: Currently, there is no standard U.S. definition of the creative economy, though the NEA has supported research examining various definitions. That said, in partnership with the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the NEA has created an annual Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account (ACPSA), both at the national and state level. So, we talk about the economic contributions or impact of arts and culture. Over the past decade, the NEA has invested in over 700 projects in communities of all shapes and sizes across the country.

Meg: What is "creative placemaking"?

Jen: NEA’s definition of creative placemaking is the integration of arts, culture, and design activities into efforts that strengthen communities by advancing local economic, physical, and/or social outcomes. This definition is purposefully vague and broad because creative placemaking draws on all artistic disciplines, and can be deployed as a strategy to address a wide range of community issues or challenges. For the NEA, creative placemaking must involve cross sector partnership (think arts and health; arts and transportation, etc.); deeply engage the community; involve artists, designers, culture bearers; and have local impact, ultimately laying the groundwork for systems change.

Art installation Southeast Washington D.C. created by Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg of Bethesda.
Art installation Southeast Washington D.C. created by Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg of Bethesda. Each flag represents an American who died from COVID-19. Photo: Ron Cogswell, Flickr

Interested in learning more about Creative Economies? Check out how it's working in West Bengal!

Holistic Lens to Address Community Challenges

Meg: You have been the arts and cultural liaison for notable federal initiatives. Can you describe how a couple of these programs served as catalysts for creative economies and are they replicable elsewhere?

Jen: I've served as the arts and cultural liaison for federal initiatives such as White House Council for Strong Cities Strong Communities, Promise Zones, and Rebuild by Design competition. The thread that ties each of these federal initiatives together is that they each are place-based programs, meaning they took a holistic lens at addressing challenges in the community.

Creative Industries White House Council for Strong Cities Strong CommunitiesDuring the Obama Administration there was a recognition that the federal government invests in siloed ways and yet in the places that we each live, we acknowledge the interconnections among transportation, environmental justice, arts and culture, affordable housing and more. We know that investments in transportation have an effect on housing, economic development, education access, etc.

These federal initiatives were remarkable in that various federal agencies coordinated their response to investing in local communities, including the National Endowment for the Arts. They each offered a platform to demonstrate just how important arts and culture are, and how they hold potential to impact the well-being of residents. And in the case of Rebuild by Design, it demonstrated how designers in particular can play a role in helping communities envision a different future, cognizant of our changing climate and with a goal of building more resilient places.

Read More: What is Culture? The Definition of Culture from World Experts

Creative Placemaking as a Catalyst

Meg: How is Creative Placemaking a catalyst for regenerating communities?

Jen: Arts and culture can contribute to the well-being and future of communities in multiple ways, by:

  • Bringing new attention to or elevate key community assets and issues, voices of residents, local history, or cultural infrastructure.
  • Injecting new or additional energy, resources, activity, people, or enthusiasm into a place, community issue, or local economy.
  • Envisioning new possibilities for a community or place - a new future, a new way of overcoming a challenge, or approaching problem-solving.
  • Connecting communities, people, places, and economic opportunity via physical spaces or new relationships.

A pianist makes use of a public piano, effectively adding to the sense of place of Washington Square Park, Manhattan, New York.
A pianist makes use of a public piano, effectively adding to the sense of place of Washington Square Park, Manhattan, New York. Photo: Robert Ziemi, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

A Roadmap to Engaging Communities

Meg: You were previously an urban planner for the District of Columbia. What is the role of an urban planner in developing creative economies?

Jen: Urban planners look holistically at place and consider the multiple dimensions of a community, such as transportation, economic development, land use, safety, housing, education, and civic infrastructure. From that holistic perspective, arts and culture should also be planned for and resourced in the same way that we invest in other forms of community infrastructure.

Urban planners can play a role in engaging communities to inform comprehensive plans that outline aspirations and long-term guidance for investment in arts, culture to benefit the local economy. They can also help to facilitate processes that identify cultural and creative assets, illuminating unique histories, stories, people, and cultures of a place. In many cases, urban planners have also crunched the numbers on economic drivers in a region, often identifying arts and cultural activities as having significant economic impact. All of this helps to inject support for arts and culture into the long-term community plan which captures goals and aspirations, while providing a roadmap for prioritized investment.

A diagram displaying an artist's rendering of different examples of placemaking that architects and planners use to enhance pedestrian experiences
A diagram displaying an artist's rendering of different examples of placemaking that architects and planners use to enhance pedestrian experiences. Photo: Thompson Placemaking, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Give Creatives a Seat at the Table

Meg: What are some ways communities can move toward fulfilling SDG 11?

Jen: Three key suggestions I can offer localities that want to foster a creative economy are:

  • Invite artists, designers and culture-bearers to inform, facilitate, and direct local planning initiatives. Offer them a real seat at the table. Artists have the unique ability to connect deeply with community residents and invite those previously excluded from local investment. Beyond that, artists can help innovate and improve local government systems, and ultimately better serve residents.

Creative Industries economy planning initiatives

  • Invest in your creative sector, equitably. The creative sector certainly includes arts institutions like your local museums and concert venues, but it encompasses so much more. Don’t forget about freelancers and contractors that lack the stability and safety net of a salaried job. Think beyond traditional arts institutions and resources and invest in the culture-bearers in your community, including BIPOC-led organizations that make your community the place people want to be.
  • Support unconventional partnerships. Artists and creative workers are brilliant problem solvers and can lend support to a wide range of community challenges. We all know that arts and culture has an economic impact, but let’s not forget the role that arts and culture can play in advancing social justice, improving public health, designing spaces that welcome all, and so much more.

Meg Pier

Meg Pier

Publisher and editor of People Are Culture (PAC). This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.


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