Fighting Gentrification with Creative Placemaking

Updated: Oct 8, 2019

Too often, artists and arts organizations are unfairly accused of causing gentrification.

Fact is: Every thing that makes a community more livable leads to uncomfortable changes and displacement. Better schools. Better roads. Less crime. Nicer parks. More job opportunities nearby. A new transit station in the neighborhood will do more to jack up rents than any artisanal coffeeshop or yoga studio.

Blaming an art gallery for gentrification is like blaming a gardener for hornets.

Another fact: Nobody can keep a place from changing. Even if you could build a wall that keeps new people from coming in, you can’t stop people from being born, growing older, or just changing their minds. The person who today hangs out all night at the loud bar today might be the one complaining about the noise ten years from now.

Creative placemaking can help. This work, as practiced by the people who understand it, is about people working together to grow healthier, more inclusive and more equitable communities. Together, we protect what’s good about a place, and change what’s not.

We do this by engaging local creativity and cultural activities in communities to address social, economic, cultural and environmental issues.

Creative placemakers in Perth Amboy, NJ work on a creative placemaking plan. Image by Noelle Zaleski

We do this through real, meaningful collaborations that give everyone – everyone – who wants to help a community a seat at the table. (That means we don’t pre-judge people because of their race, gender, ethnicity, profession, income or political orientation.) We don’t say yes to everything, but we have the courage to consider ideas that may challenge our thinking.

So, how can creative placemakers fight the negative effects of gentrification? First, let’s get on the same page.

It’s a four-dimensional problem. We all know about lower-income people being pushed out by rising rents. That’s the residential dimension. But even homeowners who benefit from rising property values can still feel uncomfortable about the changes in their neighborhood.

Stores and businesses that not only serve their needs, but also make them feel more connected to their community, get replaced by stores and businesses that serve different people. This is the commercial dimension.

Every place has unwritten rules about what people there consider to be good or bad behavior. Where we live in New Jersey, it’s ok to interrupt people or be upfront (to a point). In other places, that’s rude. Every new person carries their own customs into a place. And when there’s enough new people, things may change. Some things that everyone seemed to be ok with yesterday may be a problem for some people today. Or some newcomers might act in ways that longtime residents don’t like. This is the cultural dimension.

The fourth dimension – environmental – is about how we use and protect spaces we all share. This includes sidewalks, parks, and streets, and also walls, awnings, etc. People who are new to a place – or have gained power in it – may try to use laws and other tools to impose their own tastes on it. Consider an immigrant neighborhood where the storefronts don’t match. Business owners have awnings in different sizes and colors.

Some have blinking lights on their windows; others have handwritten signs in their own languages. A group of newer residents thinks that looks ugly and cluttered, so they get their elected officials to pass a law requiring all awnings to be about the same size and colors. And no more blinking lights. The paper signs? Well, maybe it’s not illegal, but somebody’s going to talk to the shopkeeper about that.

When people feel connected to a place, they want to see themselves – or whom they aspire to be – in the spaces they inhabit. That’s why some people get offended when a well-meaning, but not well-informed, artist surprises them with an outdoor mural. It’s also why murals created with community members tend to be supported. People nurture what they help create.

Creative placemakers – who are any people involved in creative placemaking – can help in several ways. By engaging people through creative and cultural activities, we can:

· Help surface and document the special qualities of a place – the customs, the special places, the hidden facts that don’t show up in official records and histories.

· Bring people together and help competitors become collaborators. We can organize events that inspire dialogues, instead of just meetings that lead to more arguments.

· Inspire people to unleash their own creativity, so they can compose more than several good strategies for difficult problems.

· Help equip people to address big social, economic, cultural and environmental issues; and help them understand that while nobody can do everything, everybody can do something.

· Give people the confidence to do what they can, and bring in outside support when they need it. We can probably find enough people in the community to paint a mural, but that by itself won’t create good affordable housing. We might need to invite builders who will do quality work, or bring in people who have the skill sets and resources to help us build a community land trust.

Finally, if we want more artists to support communities, we need to bring more dollars into communities to support artists.

Importing dollars, knowledge and other wealth alone doesn’t cause gentrification. That depends on who benefits -- and how.

Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP, is the Executive Director of The National Consortium for Creative Placemaking (NCCP) in Union, New Jersey. He is a national award-winning planner for his work in promoting diversity and social justice. NCCP is partnering with Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute and ArtPlace America to produce the National Creative Placemaking Leadership Summit, November 14-16, 2019 in Phoenix. To learn more or register, go to

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