From Dusty Village to Destination: Santa Fe, the Cradle of American Creative Placemaking

A centuries-old Spanish mission? Nope. The Santa Fe Museum of Fine Arts, built in 1907.

Like the beautiful brown-to-red rock formations nearby, the City of Santa Fe seems to rise organically from northern New Mexico’s high desert. Santa Fe is an international arts and culture destination, each year drawing artists, aficionados of Spanish colonial or Native American history, and millions upon millions of dollars owned by tourists buying into “Santa Fe style.”

But like so many “adobe” buildings – which are really made up of the same materials used for your house – Santa Fe’s image has been meticulously planned and maintained. The city demonstrates the enduring power of planning and placemaking.

Founded in 1607, Santa Fe is one of America’s oldest cities of European heritage. (Nearby Acoma Pueblo, from 1100 AD, is actually the oldest continuing settlement in the United States.) But the Santa Fe that most people know got its start in the early 20thcentury, with the 1912 City Plan.

The plan was probably the first approach at what today we call creative placemaking. There were other arts colonies in the US. But Santa Fe’s plan was the first to look at arts and local cultural activities as a way to build a stronger, more prosperous city.

As told by Chris Wilson in The Myth of Santa Fe, the innovative plan envisioned Santa Fe as a national cultural tourism destination. To this end, the plan recommended that all buildings be maintained in variations of Pueblo or Spanish Territorial forms (later known as Santa Fe Style). No industrial activities would be allowed downtown and that curving pedestrian streets in the downtown would be protected from widening and straightening.

The vision was so powerful that some owners of existing structures built in ornate architectural forms -- such as Italianate -- changed their facades to fit in with the Santa Fe -- even though there were no legal requirements to do so.

One of the most amazing aspects of the vision's power is that it didn't carry any legal weight until the 1950s, when Santa Fe created its zoning code mandating the Santa Fe design style.

With so much art and natural beauty, cultural tourism in Santa Fe today seems a natural fit. Not so in 1912. The City is surrounded by natural beauty, but no more so than any other Northern New Mexico town. In the early 20th century, there were more artists in Taos. A closer town, Espanola, sits on the Rio Grande (a more likely pre-automobile navigation route) and is closer to many of the Pueblo villages that inspired Santa Fe's leaders. Albuquerque was a bigger town, and on the famed Atcheson Topeka Santa Fe (ATSF) railroad main line between Chicago and Los Angeles.

So why did creative placemaking work in Santa Fe?

It met the different interests of various groups in the city. After several decades of economic decline, business people were looking for an economic development boost. The city did not get to be on the ATSF main rail line, depriving it of the opportunity to compete with other southwestern towns for manufacturing and distribution. In a place without the agricultural capacity or waterways of other growing cities, cultural tourism couldn't hurt.

The architectural style reflected the interests of descendants of Spanish conquistadors and immigrants who were part of the cultural and economic elites or otherwise engaged with Anglos. It also helped that Edgar Hewett, who was as influential to Santa Fe then as Jane Jacobs was to New York, and other Anglo leaders encouraged the creation of the Santa Fe Fiesta to celebrate Spanish culture.

In the early 20th century, there was a growing industry in Native American arts and artifacts. Cultural tourism could bring more business opportunities for Pueblo Indians.

Northern New Mexico was already attracting artists, architects, archaeologists and cultural historians who could now get into the high desert through trains and early automobiles. (In fact, the leading painters and patrons of New Mexico's art scene came from New York.) These cultural elites would of course support a vision that preserved their fantasies of New Mexico.

Although the vision was developed and implemented largely by an archaeologist and former college president, Edgar Hewett, leaders throughout the city were involved in its development.

The vision was culturally inclusive. Rather than have one ethnic group's interests dominate others, it strove to promote an image of place where Native Americans, Spanish descendants, and Anglo-Americans living together in peace. (This is the essential "myth" that Wilson describes so well.

The integration, Wilson says, was largely superficial, and often excluded lower-income people who considered themselves more "Mexican" than "Spanish." The strict design guidelines deny Latino residents -- some of whom use tropical colors in and around their homes -- opportunities to see their architectural tastes reflected in the tourist areas.) Today, the city's strict design guidelines and architectural standards would not be considered culturally competent for the diversity there. So, in that sense, it’s not as good an example of creative placemaking as you might see elsewhere today.

But what Santa Fe did was courageous and groundbreaking – and provided us a good prototype for enhancing communities through arts and local cultural activities.

Want to learn more about Santa Fe and creative placemaking in New Mexico? Join us for EMERGING PATHWAYS, the second annual West Creative Placemaking Leadership Summit -- Feb 7-9 in Albuquerque and Feb 9-10 in Santa Fe.

(Image source:

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