A Snapshot of Creative Placemaking in Higher Education, April 2016

a2ru News, Creative Placemaking

July 21, 2016

The Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru) released a targeted survey in April 2016 examining the role of creative placemaking in higher education. The purpose of the survey was to identify creative placemaking activity in higher education as grounding for the 2016 Arts Business Research Symposium, April 28-29 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Little is known about how creative placemaking intersects with higher education, despite a burst of activity in the last five years within government, non-profits, community organizers, building sectors, and industry partners (fueled by significant federal, private, and industry financial incentives). This survey was an initial effort to begin this investigation.

a2ru identifies issues and trends in higher education within arts-integrative research, curricula, and creative practice, and addresses institutional hurdles to implementation. a2ru has identified creative placemaking as an important emergent and rapidly growing collective impact model, with arts at its core. As historical framing, Anne Gadwa Nicodemus notes, “Creative placemaking is a relatively new term for work that’s been organically happening in neighborhoods, towns and cities all across the country for decades. Within the last few years it’s received new momentum in terms of funding and policy coordination.” a2ru is interested in the role arts and design play in the maintenance and development of communities. Specifically, we are interested in the role higher education can play in the advancement of this type of dynamic activity, known as “creative placemaking.”

Fueling Creative Placemaking in the United States

In 2010, the National Endowment for the Arts commissioned a white paper on creative placemaking by Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa Nicodemus for the 2010 Mayors’ Institute on City Design. From this white page came a working definition of creative placemaking that we will refer to in this survey report. This white paper defines creative placemaking  as a space where, “partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.”

In the past five years significant national resources have been directed towards creative placemaking activities. The most robust funders of this work in the U.S. include: ArtPlace America, Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts’ Our Town funding opportunity. In 2014, The Kresge Foundation awarded $21.6M to their Arts & Culture program; a large percentage of that funding is dedicated to creative placemaking. Since 2011 (five years into a 10-year initiative), the ArtPlace America National Creative Placemaking Fund has invested “$67 million in 227 creative placemaking projects in 152 communities of all sizes across 43 states and the District of Columbia.” Since 2011, the NEA Our Town funding opportunity has awarded 256 grants, with $21M distributed in all 50 states plus Washington, D.C. This is a total of $109.6M distributed across the United States for creative placemaking efforts in a five-year span (2011-16).

It isn’t definitively known how many of these grants involve higher education partners, with the exception of Our Town grantees. 39 of the 256 Our Town grantees have identified partners in higher education. This constitutes $2.9M in funding, or 14% of grants awarded between 2011-15 intersecting with higher education.Because the main U.S. creative placemaking grantors fund organizations and not individuals, individual efforts are not being reflected through these funding channels. Our working assumption for conducting this survey, was that much of the work in creative placemaking being done in higher education is being done ad hoc by faculty, program directors and students, and isn’t being reflected in the tax form 1099’s and published reporting documents of these funders.

Key Questions:

  • What is the role of higher education in creative placemaking and how is the field defined?
  • Who is involved in creative placemaking in higher education?
  • How are projects funded?
  • What are the key challenges for higher education involvement in creative placemaking?

The following results represent the data collected and analyzed in an effort to identify the most prominent themes respondents noted.

Survey Questions and Responses:


What is your definition of creative placemaking?


Top Three Coded Themes:

Development: This theme represented both economic and community development.q1word

Activating Places:The use of arts and culture as a strategy for the betterment of a community.

Identity:The creation or further articulation of community identity.

Other common themes: Urban design and education

Key Takeaway(s)

There is no agreed upon definition of creative placemaking. Responses align overall with creative placemaking as defined by Markusen and Gadwa (see page 1). Multiple institutions contacted the a2ru office during the survey period, not understanding the term “creative placemaking.” A few respondents had no definition, or had a negative response calling it a “buzzword,” or “slogan.”

“Universities can lead by example and model ways to transform space working with key partnerships with artists, community constituents, funders and officials.”

What do you view as the current or potential role(s) of higher education in creative placemaking?


Top Three Coded Themes:

Education:The most common role identified was that of education – both of students andq2word the broader community – to serve as “centers for public discourse.” Several respondents believe creative placemaking initiatives serve as opportunities for students to have hands-on experiences in the community.

Partnerships: To develop key partnerships with artists, community stakeholders, funders, and officials.

Research: Opportunity to advance our understanding of creative placemaking and contribute to the “livability of communities.”

Other common themes: Activating place, leadership, development, and public engagement.

Key Takeaway(s)

By leveraging their institutional, intellectual, creative and cultural capital, universities become valuable resources for their community partners. This partnership proves mutually beneficial, as these partnerships may aid in the educational development of students and the advancement of creative placemaking research, better embedding universities in their communities. The word “potential” arose multiple times, with many respondents acknowledging that higher education has a vital role to play in the field, and has “barely realized its potential.”

“Creative placemaking requires thoughtful and continuous follow-through. The obstacle is finding the right initiator who will bring people together and stay with the project through completion.”

Other than financial resources, what are the greatest obstacles to your work in the creative placemaking space?


Top Three Coded Themes:

Differing Interests: Having to balance interests of faculty, the university, city officials, and community stakeholders.word3

Time and Energy: Several competing interests leave little time for new endeavors especially collaborative projects.

Articulation of Value: The value of the arts in placemaking has not been clearly articulated to those outside the field.

Other common themes: Bureaucracy, connecting collaborators, adequate assessment tools, and the concept of “creative placemaking” in and of itself is confusing.

Key Takeaway(s)

Creative placemaking is project-based work occurring outside of the university. This in itself complicates normal modes of operation for faculty and university administration; the geographic distance from campus, combined with multiple stakeholders involved in projects requires extra time, effort and collaborative skill to establish a successful working relationship. Furthermore this extra effort must be justified by some metric that communicates the social value of creative placemaking projects. The words “red tape,” “fear,” “silos,” and the challenges of cross-sector collaborations appeared multiple times.

“Once potential collaborators [hear] what the possibilities might be, they become intrigued. But you have to find those people, those projects and have a chance to become part of those conversations.”

Are there creative placemaking initiatives taking place in your community that you would like to be part of but have found difficult to become engaged with? If so, what have been the challenges?


Top Three Coded Themes:

No: This theme arose most often, but for some respondents, it’s unclear if they’re in word4reference to the idea that there weren’t any initiatives they wanted to be part of, or that they didn’t find it difficult to become engaged in the initiatives.

Time and Energy: Finding the time and having the energy to work on projects that often don’t get the same level or recognition as traditional university work.

Funding: Finding money to maintain these long-term projects and ongoing relationships.

Other common themes: Connecting with collaborators, differing interests of groups, articulation of value, geographical distance, and bureaucracy. Other key factors also included navigating local town-to-gown politics, and articulating the value proposition.

Key Takeaway(s)

Creative placemaking work is minimally incentivized by institutional structures, therefore these projects are often extra work that faculty must take on. Providing some logistical support structures and funding would lessen the two most significant barriers to this kind of work.

Where are the Creative Placemakers in Higher Education?


Out of 34 respondents, 91% reported that creative placemaking initiatives were taking place at their institutions. Figure 1 shows which departments these faculty or staff, involved in these projects, are housed.

Who on Campus is Doing or Sponsoring the Work?


Central Administration supports 14% of respondents. Schools of Arts and Architecture/Urban Planning account for 46% of creative placemaking activities, both curricular and engaged learning opportunities. Medicine accounts for almost 10%.


Out of 35 respondents, 77% reported that creative placemaking initiatives were being funded at their institutions. Figure 3 shows the breakdown for how these projects are funded. Grants are the most common method of funding. Self-funded is the second most common, meaning that respondents identified faculty salaries as a common funding source for creative placemaking projects.

Cities Impacted by Creative Placemaking in Higher Education


Survey respondents identified more than 20 cities where their universities or colleagues were involved in creative placemaking projects. Almost all cities were in direct proximity to the research university respondents.

Survey Participants

We received 35 responses from 19 universities in the a2ru consortium.

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 3.42.37 PM

Methods and Analysis

This survey was designed in coordination with Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute. The survey was sent to 35 a2ru partners, and was open from April 20-24, 2016, allowing four days for completion and submission. We received 35 responses from 19 universities in the a2ru network.

Survey responses were analyzed with the NVivo qualitative software package. We ran word frequencies, visualized as word clouds for each question; setting the minimum word length at 3 letters, identifying additional stop words, as well as stemming word responses. We coded each open-ended response into discrete categories to help identify emerging themes from respondents.

Next Steps

Survey results indicate there is wide participation in creative placemaking efforts by faculty, students, and program leaders in higher education. These efforts are focused in the communities geographically aligned with universities. There is consensus that this work is challenging and necessary, as well as barely realized and minimally supported. There is an express desire by respondents to expand the role of higher education institutions in creative placemaking. The responses do not specifically identify if national funding organizations are advancing projects their universities are involved in; they do point to some investment being made by universities internally.

This was a very quick, targeted survey. Our broader goal is to gain a deeper understanding of the intersection and challenges of higher education within creative placemaking in order to better connect the faculty, students and staff to:

  1. Tools and resources to foster better partner communication and collaborations, and reduce institutional barriers.
  2. Identified funding initiatives.
  3. Foster the necessary relationships and collaborations that help alleviate the time and energy pressures often experienced by faculty and staff.

a2ru will develop a Creative Placemaking Program Module in 2017, building on these findings. We received many comprehensive content-rich responses. Anonymized responses from this survey are available upon request.

For a downloadable file please click here.

Special thanks to the a2ru network of leaders who provided detailed and thoughtful responses to this survey. This survey report was created and processed by: Greg Esser, Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute, survey design; Edgar Cardenas, a2ru, comprehensive analysis and data visualization; and Laurie Baefsky, a2ru, data translation and synthesis.

Leave a Reply