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On a slightly overcast yet sunny Wednesday morning I made my way from Hoboken, to Paul Robeson Center at Rutgers University Newark campus for an all day affair called Create a Place: Art Builds Communities, a Creative Placemaking Conference organized by Arts Build Communities.

Before going into detail about what Creative Placemaking is, and what made the conference such a worthwhile experience let me share some words from Newark mayor Cory A. Booker’s welcome address on the importance of the arts to Newark specifically, and communities in general: “I am a mayor, and I am a pragmatist. I know the arts are one of the biggest economic development drivers in a community. I see the arts drive development. I see the arts drive jobs,” Booker said. “But that’s not why I am excited to be here today. Art isn’t about pragmatism. It is about the divine.”

booker.jpgFollowing these profoundly moving words Booker proceeded to describe the transformative power of art and the importance of creating places for that transformation to occur. Which brings us back to the central idea behind the Creative Placemaking Conference, at least as I understand it—to bring the same type of planning and intention that goes into other forms of community development to community art initiatives and activities and moreover make them an integral part of planning considerations. Or, as more succinctly described on their site to “focus on building, advancing and sustaining creative communities and art centered economies.”

This second anniversary of the conference brought together a unique group of 150 urban planners, commercial real estate developers, elected and appointed officials, artists and arts administrators, among others to discuss and share their ideas and experiences. The beauty of the term “Creative Placemaking” and even the conference itself lies partly in the fluidity of how creative placemaking is defined. What it means for each community will differ based on each ones specific character, strengths and resources.

Carol-Color.jpgWhat works well for one community might fail if replicated elsewhere. Keynote speaker Carol Colletti, President of ArtPlace, astutely recognized this in her comment “the minute I start to define it [creative placemaking], it becomes a very generic exercise.” That said, Colletti did provide examples of some particularly successful projects including: Chicago’s Dorchester Projects, Tennessee’s Create Here and Main x24, and Rhode Island’s WaterFire.

The conference format was designed to encourage exchange. During the morning session attendees were randomly seated with each other and instructed to “introduce themselves.” Then there were themed panel discussions followed by peer coaching sessions. The panel I attended was called “Starting a Creative Placemaking Effort” moderated by Lis Mery Ramirez of the Perth Amboy Gallery Center for the Arts with panelists Mary Eileen Fouratt, Executive Director, Monmouth County Arts Council, Mayor M. James Maley, Jr., Borough of Collingswood, Patrick Morrissey, Executive Director, HANDS, Inc. and John Pietrowski, Artistic Director, Playwrights Theater who provided unique perspectives on questions ranging from how they began their organizations to how to achieve community buy in. On a more personal note, I met dozens of amazing individuals committed to enriching their communities through the arts, from galleries such as City Without Walls (cWoW) and Gallery Aferro to development initiatives such as Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District and The Commons Community Development Corporation and arts councils such as the Belmar Arts Council.

If you are engaged in or interested in starting creative placemaking in your community Arts Builds Communities offers community coaching and a Creative Placemaking Master Practitioner Certificate Program in addition to the annual Creative Placemaking Conference.