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 the above. Creative engagement, when designed deliberately, collaboratively, and with specific populations in mind, can help increase and diversity who participates in planning activities and processes. 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).
The Spectrum of Creative Engagement
Creative engagement can range from small-scale interventions in an existing planning process to the design of a process that embraces creative methods and approaches from inception. In that way, creative engagement exists on a cumulative spectrum, with each point being inclusive of but more expansive than the previous.
Creative Engagement Spectrum
The spectrum is useful for making decisions about how and when to use creative engagement in a process or project. Approaches toward the higher end of the spectrum will depend on available resources (budget, timeline, and staffing), organizational culture and constraints, and the mix of interests and skills among members of the project team and stakeholders. Generally speaking, the earlier in a project that creative engagement can be employed, the greater its transformative potential. Even so, creative engagement at any point on this spectrum can be valuable, and planners can leverage aspects of creative engagement to introduce new perspectives and practices to any project.
Because creative engagement is often a collaborative pursuit, partnerships with organizations or individuals that are already doing creative work can increase the impact that such an approach can have on a process. However, it is important not to jump into partnership for the sake of partnership and to thoroughly understand the benefits and risks involved in partnering before deciding to partner.
Planners can find partners in creative engagement in many different places and through many different avenues – there is not one solution. 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. Here are some tips for finding partners:
- A quick internet search is a good place to start, as many artists, arts organizations, and creative practitioners have an internet presence or social media. While an internet search might help you identify possible partners, it may not reveal whether creative engagement is a skill they possess.
- 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.
- Connect with a local Arts Council, Arts Commission, Cultural Council, or Cultural Commission. Those organizations are an excellent resource for identifying potential partners.
- Many schools and universities have connections with artists and/or arts organizations. If the local school district has an arts program, reach out to them. Similarly, colleges and universities with arts/creative degrees or programming can be useful places to identify partners.
To build an effective partnership, it will help to understand what all partners could bring to a process. A partnership that benefits all involved, and thus the project, should accomplish something that neither partner can accomplish on their own. For more guidance about collaboration and partnerships, please see “Doing Things Collaboratively: Realizing the Advantage or Succumbing to Inertia,” by Huxham and Vangen (2004), and “Perfect Fit or Shotgun Marraige?: Understanding the Power and Pitfalls in Partnerships", by Xavier de Souza Brigg (2003).
Creative Engagement takes time—and money. Thankfully, there are many available sources to fund projects that use this emerging and exciting area of planning practice. Your funding needs and sources 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 the Surdna Foundation, offer substantial, yet competitive funding for projects that advance arts and culture-led community development and planning.
- Art Place 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 to pay them for their efforts. 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. This strategy worked very well for the 3C Indy project described below.
Planning with Creative Engagement
Infusing creative engagement into planning can introduce an element of uncertainty and make it more challenging to predict and measure a project’s outcomes. The earlier in a project’s development creative engagement is introduced, the more likely it is to result in a non-traditional process that may yield unanticipated outcomes. So, why should planners care about creative engagement, and what benefits can it bring to planning projects?
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.
- Offer new ways for people to be involved in framing questions and problems together, rather than “inserting” their thoughts into an existing dialogue or responding to pre-determined questions.
- Transform negative perceptions of planning by providing avenues for meaningful engagement and distinguishing the planning 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 the opportunity to 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 and political pursuit, rather than a technical discipline.
- Connect everyday and lived experiences to systemic issues in order to make complex planning concepts accessible to a range of community members.
- 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
- Uncover new and previously unheard perspectives on an issue, in turn paving the way for 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 publicity stunt, one part performance art, and one part street art marketing campaign, transformed over the years into 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 mascot to prompt El Paso residents to consider what their community would be like with a restoration of the old street car network. The experiment was so successful that it prompted the community to petition the City of El Paso and the State of Texas to fund and implement the El Paso Trolley, which opened in 2018, albeit without a link to Ciudad Juarez. The El Paso Transnational Trolley Project prompted community members to explore possibilities that might not have otherwise entered public consciousness, let alone be acted on and made 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.
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 shaped the project’s ethos, in turn helping stakeholders and community members reimagine what it means to use public transit and grapple 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 community members so that transit service could be more effectively tailored. The success of the project has spurred the involvement of art and design in transportation in other ways. 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 several 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 frequented in the area to understand how bike lanes can improve mobility and overall quality of life.
The Montgomery County bicycle lane simulation supported people's ability to imagine and understand different mobility options. While it’s easy to talk about bike lines in public meetings with presentations and renderings, simulating the bike lane in physical space helped diffuse potential criticism while also shaping new knowledge about the benefits of new mobility options and infrastructure. Planning and implementing this pilot project also required creativity and collaboration from planners and community members—benefits that long outlasted the installation itself.
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 worked with municipal staff to create an engagement tool 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. In addition to interacting with this tool, participants also had the opportunity to create their own crankies, where they shared their vision for tackling racial inequities.
Minneapolis 2040’s mobile engagement product and scrolls allowed community members to reflect on the meaning of equity in ways that were both imaginative and embodied. Through the physical activity of creating and using the scrolls, participants placed themselves as active citizens involved in shaping the future of their city. By collaborating with creative thinkers who brought fresh ideas and approaches to the table, the city was able to generate meaningful insights that shaped the framing and elements of the resulting Minneapolis Comprehensive 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 the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (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 imagine 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 a series of conversations on participatory community planning using a sustainability framework. 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 is starting point for those who are new to creative 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 that are widely used by organizations seeking to engage the public. Some of the tools and resources referenced in this book have been developed by Emerson's Engagement Lab, which has been experimenting with creative participatory methods for over ten years.
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.
This graphic demonstrates how design thinking can support creative engagement initiatives, and is a great resource for planners looking to design engagement strategies that are participant-centered and encourage 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.
People Behind the Plans interviewed Julie Barros 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 about how creativity engagement and creative practice can transform planning and community development.
This white paper eexamines how artists in leadership roles can positively impact community development. Highlights the profound impact that an artistic approach can have on community action and engagement efforts.
A white paper that 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.
This white paper examines the role of creativity and “meaning-making” in learning, focusing specifically on schools and education. The study examines how stakeholders can strengthen meaning-making opportunities using body-mind experiences and effective interaction with a social-learning environment. This study can help you think more critically about the creative experiences that you are building for your participants.
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 video 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 and participation that led to the development of the People’s Cultural Plan, a response to CreateNYC, New York City’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