Growing a healthier civil society through creative placemaking

Updated: Jan 15

A hot pot simmers before it boils; bubbles before it boils over. If we’re paying attention, it’s not a surprise. Even when we don’t see the flames agitating the system, we can feel the heat.

Over the last year, I’ve written about how creative placemakers should focus on helping

communities heal and recover faster and become more resilient. I’m sorry to put something else on your plate, but I think the times call for it: promoting stronger civil society.

By stronger, I mean being better able to handle disagreements, tensions, and even the aftermath of conflict in ways that allow people to feel more secure; encourages more people to consider new possibilities; and blends justice, fairness, charity and mercy.

It sounds like a tall order for local arts and cultural activities. But I think these are excellent tools for growing healthier civil societies.

Through creative placemaking, art has the power to both soothe tensions and exercise imaginations. Communal artmaking – people gathering together to paint, for example – can be a non-threatening way to bring people together. It can help people who normally side-eye one another to feel more comfortable. And when people are having fun together, they can be more open to talking about what makes them tense.

Culture is short-hand for a society’s systems and expressions of beliefs. Cultural activities help remind people of, and reinforce, ways of being in their communities. Culture is how people learn about the unwritten and hard-to-define rules that help societies thrive and deal with conflict.

Some cultural activities can seem staid or quaint, just as some artwork can lose its flavor and just be mind-filler. By strategically engaging artists and culture-bearers, creative placemakers can help people expand their knowledge and better manage new tensions.

Several years ago, I worked with the Cooper’s Ferry Partnership in Camden, NJ, on a series of concerts and other arts events called Connect the Lots. One of the impacts of having concerts and social activities in neighborhood parks was that it made residents feel better about a city that was seen, by too many people, as a center for violence, corruption, inefficiency and inequity.

A meta-analysis (study of studies) by The World Health Organization found that "the arts have been shown to help build social cohesion and support conflict resolution through developing cognitive, emotional and social skills for constructive engagement with conflict, and by supporting empathy, trust, social engagement, collaboration and transformative learning, thereby producing more cooperative relationships. Among indigenous communities, the arts can help to preserve cultural traditions and promote identity and resilience. Between different cultural groups, the arts (including film and literature) can help to reduce ethnic tensions and improve interethnic relations and cultural competence."

Why does it matter how people feel? Because feelings often drive perception. People tend to accept the things that support their biases, and reject or ignore the things that don’t. It’s a reason why some people think that people like themselves are fair-minded and not cruel, while imagining that those unlike them have poisoned minds and could not be kind.

I’m under no impression that arts and cultural activities will help unite all of us. My grandmother’s family was killed in the Holocaust. I come from a country – Argentina – that had a murderous dictatorship in the 1970s. (And governments cannot be cruel without the tacit support of a large number of their constituents.) As a reporter in Southwest Florida in the early 1990s, I saw how people could easily be worked up into frenzied anger by a bridge project or even thong bikinis.

Some people whose hearts are hardened aren’t going to change because of a mural project. They probably wouldn’t even show up. Luckily, there are organizations and various art therapy initiatives that help individuals create profound change in their lives. Every life these initiatives shapes effects countless others.

But I do think that most people are well-meaning, and open to new ideas. Conflict is a natural part of human relationships – but so is the desire to resolve conflict as quickly as possible. We all value the security of what we think we know. But most of us also like to learn.

Creative placemakers can bring together the people and inspire the activities that help manage tensions -- reducing the negative ones that cause people to turn away from one another and working the positive ones that challenge people to think in new ways.

A hot pot can host a boiling mess or a heartwarming stew. What happens depends on what we do.

Additional resources:

*What is the evidence on the role of arts on improving health and well-being: A scoping review

*The Art in Peacemaking: An Initiative of the Partnership for Conflict Resolution in the Arts

*Can Art Aid in Resolving Conflicts?

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