What is a Cultural District?


Cultural districts are special areas designated or certified by state governments that aim to foster a thriving arts and cultural sector. They are geographically designated portions of a jurisdiction that typically encompass a city or town center or neighborhood district. Often the designations come with special incentives such as technical assistance or the authority to create special tax districts to encourage economic and cultural development.

The composition and character of cultural district designations vary widely across states - and even among districts within states. As of 2015, 13 states have adopted legislation to create a process by which cultural districts may be established, and one additional state has enacted a policy to support cultural districts but has not yet launched a program. Through these programs, approximately 250 cultural districts have been designated across the country.


Why Cultural Districts are Relevant to Planners

Cultural district programs strive to advance a variety of planning goals including tourism, historic preservation, business and job development, and the clustering of arts and cultural activity. Many states have also established criteria for certifying or designating cultural districts; assistance offered to districts by state arts agencies ranges from planning and technical assistance to tax incentives.

At present, Cultural Districts are principally used as marketing tools for destination-rich areas. However, planners may help shape these areas by coordinating with partners to implement design standards, and also to incentivize certain uses within the geography. For example, planners may choose to create a density bonus for developers who construct affordable housing units within a Cultural District as a strategy to ward off gentrification, ensuring that the people who work in the area can afford to live within walking distance of their workplace.


District Anchors

At its heart, cultural districts recognize the people who are in a given area. Often they are focused in arts and culture organizations with a physical presence, such as a theater, makerspace, or art studio. In other instances the act of obtaining a cultural district designation can be a process that rallies the community to develop such a space.

Mitigating Displacement

The specific challenges of each district evolve over time, but each district seems to face challenges that follow the general trajectory of district focused arts activities. This general pattern follows a few well-known steps -

Step 1. Arts activity takes advantage of low cost space in an underused or undervalued district.

Step 2. Arts activity draws attention to the district and positive changes begin to emerge.

Step 3. Positive changes draw other real estate pressures.

Step 4. Arts activity struggles to afford the district's higher costs and moves out.

Mitigating this displacement is a fundamental consideration from the start of coordinated improvement efforts, and approaches include subsidizing costs to retain the affordability of artist activity, providing funding sources for artist activity, creating new spaces for artist activity, and maintaining or fostering the community aspects of the artist activity.


As of June 2016, Massachusetts Cultural Districts legislation does not include a provision for grant funds or other financial rewards to communities. However, the MCC has compiled a list of state agencies and departments that administer technical assistance and funding opportunities that are beneficial to municipalities that have established cultural districts. This includes:

  • Film tax and abandoned building renovation tax credits, technical assistance, and development incentive programs offered by the Massachusetts Office of Business Development
  • Technical assistance with planning, community, and economic development projects focused on downtowns, including wayfinding, BIDs, and cultural district feasibility studies offered by the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative of the Department of Housing and Community Development
  • Technical assistance with historic facilities, parkways, open spaces, and landscapes offered by the Department of Conservation and Recreation
  • Matching grants for public humanities programming that explores the meaning of place and the special character or identity of a community or place offered by Mass Humanities
  • Signage placement on state roads and highways that direct people to cultural districts, grants that promote implementation of Complete Streets design standards in cultural district areas, and access to federal transportation enhancement grants that promote pedestrian, bicycle, and street and roadway beautification offered by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation
  • Promotion of cultural districts on consumer and travel industry sections of state tourism website, cultural district promotion in arts and history newsletters, and assistance on how to market cultural districts assets to domestic and international visitors offered by the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism

Cultural Districts in Massachusetts

Massachusetts General Laws (MGL) Chapter 10, Section 58A and authorizes the establishment of criteria and guidelines for state-designated cultural districts. The MCC defines a cultural district is "a specific geographical area in a city or town that has a concentration of cultural facilities, activities, and assets. It is a walkable, compact area that is easily identifiable to visitors and residents and serves as a center of cultural, artistic and economic activity." The goals of cultural districts in Massachusetts, as defined by MGL Chapter 10, Section 58A, are to:

  1. Attract artists and cultural enterprises
  2. Encourage business and job development
  3. Establish the district as a tourist destination
  4. Preserve and reuse historic buildings
  5. Enhance property values
  6. Foster local cultural development

Cultural districts that are awarded designation maintain this status for five years; designation may be renewed for another five years if the district is in compliance with annual progress reporting requirements and there is evidence of ongoing municipal commitments to the cultural district's work.

Learn more about the Massachusetts Cultural Districts Initiative here.

Cultural Districts

Cultural Districts vary in a number of ways including in their funding, staffing, coordination promotion, and location.Each Cultural District has a different focused that is reflected by the people and organizations who make up its membership.

Click here to learn takeaways about the different examples below

Arts Districts
Innovation Districts

Tax credits and Tax incentives for Arts and Cultural districts

Arts and cultural districts can be defined in zoning in the absence of state legislation and programs guiding their certification or designation. Incentives can also be offered to promote adaptive reuse of structures for cultural facilities within designated districts.

State, regional, and local cultural district programs are supported through a variety of tax incentives that may be implemented at the city, town, county, or state levels. This includes exemptions and credits offered to creative sole proprietors and creative industries operating within a district. Examples of the types of incentives offered to established cultural districts include:

  • Sales tax credits or exemptions for goods produced or sold within the district.
  • Property tax credits or exemptions for qualified renovations or construction.
  • Income tax credits or exemptions for artists living and working within the district.
  • Preservation tax credits for historic property renovations and rehabilitation.
  • Amusement/Admission tax waivers for events within the District.
  • Eligibility for special loan funds.

The city of Providence, Rhode Island has pioneered innovative tax incentives for arts districts. City staffers, artists, and private developers have also worked together to reclaim underutilized space for artist spaces. Artists living in the ten designated arts districts have the sales tax waived on purchases of their original artwork and pay no state income tax on income from their art. The City?s planning department also provides below-market loans and technical assistance for the acquisition of spaces for artist studios and live/work space.

Learn More

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning produced this Arts and Culture Planning Toolkit to help municipalities incorporate arts and culture into their communities, enhance livability by improving quality of life, and become more attractive places to live, work, and play. It offers a primer on different types of arts and culture and their inherent primary needs and secondary impacts, then proceeds to detail steps that can be taken by communities. Model regulatory language for Cultural Districts is included in the Appendix Starting on Page 47.

This study details the Saint Anthony Pop-Up Shop, a project which entailed creative partnerships used a vacant storefront to express the identity and vision of the neighborhood. Included in the toolkit are FAQs for all parties in a rental or lease situation, a proposed timeline and workflow for a successful pop-up shop, a sample annotated leases and potential renter profiles.

This field scan, commissioned by ArtPlace America,explores the intersection of arts, culture, and housing outcomes ? focused specifically on work within the housing sector that seeks to build and maintain high quality housing affordable to low-and moderate-income individuals. Through an analysis of both housing sector priorities and place-based arts and cultural work, this scan uncovers six primary ways that creative placemaking strategies are helping to meet affordable housing goals.

This field scan, commissioned by ArtPlace America, is an inquiry into the state of arts, culture, and creative placemaking as it relates to the public safety sector. Its findings and recommendations draw upon existing literature, an online survey of 100 creative placemaking stakeholders, and semi-structured interviews with the community of artists, thought leaders, investors, and organizations working at this intersection. It also identifies projects at the intersection of creative placemaking and public safety and organizes them into five areas of activity.

Douglas S Noonan. Cultural Trends, Vol 22, No 3-4. "How US Cultural Districts Reshape Neighbourhoods." 2013. United Kingdom

This article describes the phenomenon of cultural districts in the US, reviews some claims made about their impacts, and provides evidence of districts' effects.

Geoffrey Crossick. Global Cultural Districts Network. "The Social Impact of Cultural Districts." 2019. United Kingdom.

This report analyses the different ways social impact is defined; draws out current good practice, highlighting gaps and challenges; and suggests a framework and principles for future action.

Jessica Cusick and Maria Rosario Jackson. California Arts Council. "Cultural Districts Development Program." 2016. United States.

This report was prepared by the California Arts Council to encourage the development of a broad array of authentic and sustainable cultural districts that reflect the breadth and diversity of California’s cultural assets.

Chung Hagen Consulting. Mission Local. "Exploring an Expansion of the Latino Cultural District." 2019. United States.

This study from Chung Hagen Consulting looks at how to stabilize and expand the Latino Cultural District in San Francisco by synthesizing findings from interviews, focus groups, and community meetings.

Egle Rindzeviciute. International Journal of Cultural Policy, Vol 25, No 4. Book Review of "Scenescapes: How Qualities of Place Shape Social Life." 2019. United States.

Egle Rindzeviciute reviews "Scenescapes," a book by Daniel Aaron Silver and Terry Nichols Clark that looks at how localities shape social, cultural, and economic lives.