What Is Creative Engagement?
Creative Engagement is an approach to community engagement that uses creative tools and artistic experiences to help diverse stakeholders imagine new approaches to planning processes and spark creative problem solving.
Creative Engagement can touch every aspect of the planning process. It may frame the design of the planning process itself; inform the identification of a project’s assumptions, goals, and values; or shape the implementation and execution of the project—or all of the above. Julie Burros, former Chief of Arts and Culture for the City of Boston, identifies the value of Creative Engagement as follows: “Creative tools can strengthen the understanding and exploration of community values, Creative tools increase stakeholder involvement; and Creative tools can better engage the public in community and urban design projects” (Burros 2019).
For the purposes of this brief, we have chosen to describe Creative Engagement along a spectrum of involvement, ranging from the use of creative approaches to project design and scoping to the deployment of small-scale interventions in existing planning process. Creative Engagement at any scale can be valuable. Your decision to use Creative Engagement—and at what point in a process—will depend on your resources: budget, timeline, and staffing, as well as the mix of interests, skills, and experiences among your project team and stakeholders.
The Spectrum of Creative Engagement
Creative Engagement resides on a spectrum and those hoping to utilize the practice should reflect on where on the overall spectrum they will leverage its aspects. The further up the spectrum you practice Creative Engagement, the more transformative you might find the framework on your project and process. Unfortunately, due to constraints of funding, resources, and organizational constraints, it might not be possible to utilize the most advantageous aspects of Creative Engagement. Constraints should not prevent you from considering and utilizing Creative Engagement or forming partnerships with creative organizations. Aspects of creative thinking and creative activities can be added to any project and can be refreshing when it comes to engagement and generating innovative products.
Creative Engagement Spectrum
If you are interested in adopting a Creative Engagement approach, your work might benefit from a partnership with an individual or organization that is already doing creative work. The benefits a partnership can provide increase as you move up the spectrum.
Before you embark on forming a partnership, make sure you understand what a partnership would bring to your process and what you could bring to the partnership. Start by identifying what your goals are for this process. After you know what you/your organization would like to accomplish, we suggest that you ask yourself these questions, which we have taken from Xavier de Souza Brigg’s 2003 Article “Perfect Fit or Shotgun Marraige?: Understanding the Power and Pitfalls in Partnerships":
- Should we partner, or can we accomplish this on our own?
- What overall purposes would this partnership serve?
- How should we define success?
- How partnered should we be?
After you have asked these questions, try to articulate what you can achieve through a partnership that you and your partner(s) would not be able to achieve on your own. Doing this will help set your partnership up for success. For more guidance about collaboration and partnerships, we suggest “Doing Things Collaboratively: Realizing the Advantage or Succumbing to Inertia,” by Huxham and Vangen (2004).
Partners in Creative Engagement can be artists, arts organizations (of all types: performing arts, visual arts, dance, etc.), community organizations, municipal arts and cultural councils/commissions, creative and design firms, schools and universities, and more. In the case studies that we explore below, artists, municipalities, coalitions, arts organizations, planning departments, non-profits, state governments, and municipal councils were all partners in Creative Engagement. In some instances, the partnership was initiated by a local municipality and in others it was initiated by an artist or community partner. Similarly, some of these partnerships formed organically and some were thoroughly designed.
Planners can find partners in Creative Engagement in many different places and through many different avenues – there is not one solution. Who you partner with will depend largely on what you would like to accomplish in your project and what resources you bring. Here are some tips for finding partners:
- A quick internet search is a good place to start, as many artists and arts organizations have an internet presence or social media.
- Reach out to your planning colleagues in your area to ask if any of them have suggestions or have worked with a Creative Engagement partner in the past.
- If your municipality has an Arts Council, Arts Commission, Cultural Council, or Cultural Commission, that organization is an excellent resource for identifying potential partners.
- Many schools and universities have connections with artists and/or arts organizations. If your local school district has an arts program, we suggest you reach out to them. Similarly, if you work near a college or university, see if they have any arts degrees or programming and reach out to the contact people.
Creative Engagement takes time—and money. Thankfully, there are many available sources to fund this emerging and exciting area of practice. Your funding needs will likely vary depending where your project falls on the spectrum of Creative Engagement, as well as on the creative process and products you intend to use. Incorporating Creative Engagement to design a process with multiple community partners, or to shape a creative deliverable such as an exhibition or film, will likely require a larger budget. If you intend to bring a creative approach to a planning process whose budget and deliverables are already defined, you may find it easier to allocate funds from your existing budget. Below, we’ve highlighted some examples of funding sources that can support a range of Creative Engagement practices:
- National foundations with grantmaking programs in creative placemaking, such as the Kresge Foundation and Surdna Foundation, offer substantial, yet competitive funding for projects that advance arts and culture-led community development and planning.
- ArtPlace America, a public-private partnership that includes private foundations, federal agencies, and financial institutions, is another potential source for large-scale grants. ArtPlace grants funded two of the projects in this guide, Takachizu and Pop-Up Meeting.
- For smaller scale projects, local community foundations may be able to offer funding to support partnerships with artists, cultural organizations, and other creative partners.
- If you’re working with an artist, cultural organization or other creative partner, it’s important to allocate funding at the outset of your project. Since Creative Engagement is often process-driven, funding cannot operate entirely on a reimbursable model at the completion of a project. Municipalities contracting with Creative Engagement practitioners may stipulate payments that are tied to milestones (eg. 50% at signing, 25% at design, 25% at completion).
- If there will be a competitive process for selecting creative partners, it’s important to compensate artists, cultural organizations, and other creative partners for proposal development. This fee should include a stipend and travel expenses for proposal development and presentation.
- Strategic partnerships can help boost funding for Creative Engagement. As you evaluate the potential for partnerships (see above), consider whether the individual or organization you’re considering working would be open to jointly seeking funding—and how you might support them in this work.
Planning with Creative Engagement
Infusing Creative Engagement into your planning practice will likely introduce some uncertainty. Depending on where you're working along this spectrum, Creative Engagement may result in a non-traditional process. In turn, it can also yield unanticipated outcomes. So, why should planners care about Creative Engagement, and what benefits can it bring to the planning process?
Creative Engagement can:
- Provide spaces and opportunities for people to share information that they would not otherwise share. Creative expression, such as art-making, dancing, or acting, can offer participants a unique way to share thoughts or feelings about an issue.
- Reinvigorate a process that has grown stale or been unsuccessful in several ways.
- Offer new ways for people to be involved in framing questions/problems together, rather than “inserting” their thoughts into an existing dialogue or responding to pre-determined questions.
- Transform negative perceptions of planning by distinguishing a current process from previous processes.
- Make a process fun and attract people to a project
- Generate memorable experiences that are deeply responsive to people and place, offering more meaningful avenues for participation and generate more adaptive approaches.
- Build the capacity of planners and communities to address unforeseeable issues by forming new relationships and strengthening existing ones.
- Expand the horizon of what is possible and desirable in a process, as well as the range of who is involved, by situating planning as a creative political pursuit, not a technical scientific pursuit.
- Make complex planning concepts accessible to a range of community members by connecting everyday and lived experiences to systemic planning issues.
- Help planners navigate different and/or competing interests and perspectives as well as uncover new and previously unheard perspectives on an issue that may lead the way to novel or unanticipated solutions.
Case Studies of Creative Engagement
(2016 - present)
Amanda Lovelee, Saint Paul, MN
Creative Engagement Spectrum:
3 – Creative Disposition
Pop-Up Meeting is a repurposed city vehicle designed to engage Saint Paul residents in the city’s planning process. In exchange for sharing feedback through surveys, discussions, and even love letters to the city, participants receive a popsicle from local purveyor St. Pops. The project, designed by Public Art Saint Paul’s Artist in Residence Amanda Lovelee, is a playful mechanism for community engagement. Through the familiar format of the ice cream truck, Pop-Up Meeting brings the city to the people, welcoming residents of diverse ages, abilities, and backgrounds into conversation. Today, the project continues as Pop-Up Saint Paul, an initiative that makes the Pop-Up Meeting truck available to community groups and organizations, as well as a partnership with the Saint Paul Public Library to bring Pop Up Meeting Kits to residents throughout the city.
Rosten Woo and Maya Santos with the Little Tokyo Service Center and Sustainable Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, CA
Creative Engagement Spectrum:
5 – Creative Metamorphosis
Takachizu—from the Japanese words takara (treasure) and chizu (map)—is a community archive that identifies and reflects on that which is most valuable about Little Tokyo. Conceptualized as “a museum with nothing in it,” the project invited members of Los Angeles’s Japanese American community to share items of historical and personal significance to be documented in a crowdsourced exhibition. Commissioned by the Little Toyo Service Center and Sustainable Little Tokyo, artists Rosten Woo and Maya Santos developed Takachizu to inform a long-term political and cultural strategy for a neighborhood facing an uncertain future in the face of development. Unfolding over the course of a year, the project included community show and tell events, cultural programming, and performances. Today, Takachizu continues as an online archive and a series of zines that put the project’s evolution in conversation with stories from the neighborhood.
El Paso Transnational Trolley Project (2012 - 2018)
Peter Svarzbein, El Paso, TX and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico
Creative Engagement Spectrum:
5 – Creative Metamorphosis
What started in 2012 as Peter Svarzbein’s Master of Fine Arts thesis project that was one-part viral news, one-part performance art, and one-part unofficial marketing campaign, transformed over the years to a fully functional street car system made up of one line with two loops. Originally a system of 52 miles of urban streetcars, including one line that connected El Paso to Ciudad Juarez, the system closed for good in 1974 when the last streetcar crossed the US-Mexico border. Svarzbein’s thesis, called the El Paso Transnational Trolley, used an advertising campaign, public photomosaics, meet and greets, and a real live mascot to prompt El Paso residents to consider what their community would be like with a restoration of the old network. The experiment was so successful that it prompted the community to petition the City and the State of Texas to fund and implement the El Paso Trolley, which opened in 2018, however without a link to Ciudad Juarez. The Creative Engagement used during the El Paso Transnational Trolley Project prompted community members to explore possibilities that might not have made it into the public consciousness otherwise, let alone be acted on and turned in to reality.
3C Indy (2017 - 2019)
Transit Drives Indy and the Arts Council of Indianapolis
(Moore, Phone Interview, April 1, 2020)
Creative Engagement Spectrum:
4 – Creative Management
In 2017, Transit Drives Indy and the Arts Council of Indianapolis were awarded a Cultural Corridor Consortium Creative Placemaking grant from Transportation for America to launch their 3C Indy project which built on the recently completed Marion County Transportation Plan. As part of 3C Indy, TDI and the Arts Council brought together artists, communities, and arts partners in a multi-year creative placemaking project aimed at incorporating art and design into the ongoing implementation and development of two bus rapid transit lines in Indianapolis, the Red Line and the Purple Line. 3C Indy partnered with five artists to create artistic interventions that would help neighborhood residents imagine what the future bus line would look like, internalize the changes to existing bus infrastructure, and explore their relationship to community change and opportunity. Some of the placemaking events included way-finding installations exploring local businesses and activities, a video exploring the new Red Line route, a collection of poetry written by high school students, and a public art installation called “Coming Soon...Seriously” that explored community expectations about the construction and implementation of the new bus line. For the Purple Line, 3C Indy hired an Artist in Residence to engage community members in the planning process for the route.
These use of creative partnerships and engagement activities placed Creative Engagement at the ethos of this project, helped stakeholders and community members reimagine what it means to use public transit and become accustomed to and comfortable with the changes the transit lines would bring to their communities. The individual activities associated with each project also enabled 3C Indy to more deeply understand the needs of the community so that the transit lines could be more effectively tailored. The success of the project has spurred the involvement of art and design in transportation in other ways, as well. For example, the Arts Council of Indianapolis and the regional transit agency have entered into a 10-year agreement committing to spend $50,000 on the arts each year.
Montgomery County Planning Department’s Bicycle Master Plan (2018)
David Anspacher, Montgomery County Planning Department
Creative Engagement Spectrum:
Creative Engagement can sometimes allow people to imagine a reality that does not yet exist. The Montgomery County Planning Department simulated a separated bike lane during their bicycle master planning process. A team of those working on a Master Plan, which would transform Downtown Silver Springs, Maryland, took over some parking spaces to allow residents to envision what separated bike lanes could look like in the area. The pilot bike lane was created with potted plants and stationary bicycles. This creative simulation allowed local residents and those who frequent in the area to understand how bike lanes could improve how people can move around and how bike lanes can impact overall quality of life in the area.
The Montgomery County bicycle lane simulation is an example of Creative Engagement because it amplified people's imagination to best understand different mobility options. The bicycle lane could easily be talked about at a public meeting with visual renderings but an actual simulated bike lane makes things even more real and can spark exponential learning and new knowledge. The process and preparation of such a pilot requires creativity and collaboration.
Imagining Equity (2016 - 2017)
Mike Hoyt, Molly Van Avery, Minneapolis Department of Community Planning and Economic Development
Creative Engagement Spectrum:
2 – Creative Activity
Imagining Equity was a mobile engagement product designed by artists for Phase 3A of the Comprehensive Plan for Minneapolis, Minneapolis 2040. Local artists Molly Van Avery and Mike Hoyt connected with municipal staff to build a product and process that would tell local stories of historical inequities. The artists designed a device that could display user generated stories in the form of scrolls. The scrolls, called crankies, displayed images, texts, and illustrations that would be placed in the device that would move the scrolls in a circular manner. Many participants also illustrated their values on their crankies.
Minneapolis 2040’s mobile engagement product and scrolls are a great example of Creative Engagement because it allowed community members to reflect on the topic of equity and their overall community using an activity and product that facilitated the imagination. The activity and product were also curated by local artists who used thier creative disposition to craft the experience for the participants. Both the process and the project are line with Creative Engagement but where this project went further was in collaborating with creative thinkers who brought their fresh ideas and practices to the table. The Minneapolis Comprehensive Plan benefited significantly from this Creative Engagement practice and you can see that highlighted in the elements of the plan.
The Sole of Rockland
(2018 – 2019)
Metropolitan Area Planning Council, Carolyn Lewenberg
Creative Engagement Spectrum:
3 – Creative Disposition
The Sole of Rockland was an interactive creative placemaking concept and demonstration that MAPC completed in collaboration with the Town of Rockland’s downtown revitalization effort REiMAGINE ROCKLAND. Drawing on Rockland’s history as a center of shoe manufacturing and its thriving artists community, MAPC invited residents to sit in an art-cart designed to look like a shoeshine stand where they could make a print of the sole of their shoe and talk with project staff about the places they love in Rockland. MAPC staff then worked with local artists and community members to create a walking tour, artistic maps and brochures, and a set of four steel butterflies with shoeprints from the art cart cut into them. By creating space for residents and community members to explore Rockland’s history and imaging a revitalized future, MAPC staff were able to identify meaningful actions to take to support Rockland’s downtown revitalization, protect its existing valued assets, and spark interest in investment in the community’s future.
This book is mostly a series of conversations on participatory community planning. It highlights some innovative and emerging creative practices that can be incorporated into community planning. The book also encourages creative thinking and equity in community planning.
This book describes organizational change that supports creative approaches to solving community issues and encourages different forms of public participation. The book explores and critiques digital tools which are widely used by organizations seeking to engage the public.
A nonprofit that provides resources and tools to encourage creativity. They are focused on building the creative problem-solving skills and capacity of individuals and organizations to develop new ideas, solve problems, and implement solutions.
An organization that commissions and encourages art in New York, a great website to find resources and inspiration for Creative Engagement. They host an annual summit every year that highlights creative ways artiest are working to create social change. The Creative Time is committed to presenting important art that is engaging to many publics.
A resource that will support planners with designing engagement efforts that is participant centered and that encourages creativity.
NeighborWorks supports community development using holistic strategies—driven by partnerships between residents and other stakeholders. They work across sectors to address the multiple factors that shape the lives of families and individuals. These comprehensive approaches often incorporate arts- and culture-based strategies to engage residents, build community, create awareness, forge partnerships, beautify public spaces, honor history and culture, revitalize neighborhoods, promote economic growth, and elevate marginalized voices.
Julie Barros is interviewed by the People Behind the Plans about her experience working as Director of Cultural Planning for the City of Chicago and then Chief of Arts and Culture for the City of Boston. She shares her insights around how creativity engagement and creative practice can transform planning and community.
Examines the role of artists in leadership roles in order to positively impact community development. Highlights the profound impact that an artistic approach can have on community action and engagement efforts.
Examines place-based community interventions that bring to life public and private spaces. These interventions are many times creative, arts based, and require community participation.
Examines the role of creativity and “meaning making” in learning, focusing specifically on schools and education.
Julie Burros’ MS Thesis on Creative Community Engagement explores how planners involve artists in planning work, what artists do once they are involved, and how artistic practice might influence the design of public participation and engagement.
This is an example of a plan that highlights how to best work and empower artists and other creatives in planning and engagement efforts. This video is an example of the process, conversation, participation that lead to the People’s Cultural Plan.
Burros, J.S. (2016 June 25). Exploring Creative Community Engagement. (M.S. thesis.) Retrieved April 6, 2020 from https://doi.org/10.7916/d8-pa71-tq29.
De Souza Briggs, X. (2003). Perfect Fit or Shotgun Marriage? Understanding the Power and Pitfalls of Partnership. Community Problem Solving Project @ MIT. Retrieved from: http://web.mit.edu/cpsproject/strategy_tools/implementing.html
Huxham, C. & Vangen, S. (2004). Doing Things Collaboratively: Realizing the Advantage or Succumbing to Inertia? Organizational Dynamics, 33(2), 190-201