A man poses in front of an outdoor mural

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How Art Can Help Revitalize Neighborhoods

September 22, 2021

An underlit walkway known for pedestrian accidents is made brighter and safer with vintage neon signs. Part of a parking lot is transformed into a pocket park. The dingy area under an overpass comes alive with artwork and murals.

These examples of creative placemaking were highlighted on Tuesday at the National Association of REALTORS®’ webinar “A Collaborative Approach to Building Communities through Arts and Culture,” part of the association’s Transforming Neighborhoods webinar series. The speakers offered examples of the ways art can be used to revitalize vacant and abandoned properties and create a sense of community, improve safety, and encourage economic investment.

Through creative placemaking, public, private, nonprofit and community partners can work together to reshape underutilized and distressed properties around arts and cultural activities, said Liz Kozub, associate director for national leadership and education at the Center for Community Progress, a nonprofit organization focused on eliminating vacancies. Creative placemaking works best, Kozub explained, when it follows a three-pronged approach. Such work should:

  • Create a distinct sense of place to which people have an authentic emotional connection
  • Encourage existing residents and businesses to remain, and new residents and businesses to invest
  • Reduce vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties

According to a recent survey conducted by CCP, vacant lots were the property type most likely to be used by communities for creative placemaking, followed by vacant commercial structures. Revitalizing commercial structures, in fact, can be instrumental in rehabbing a struggling downtown area. Kozub shared the success of the Big Zipper Project in Meadville, Pa., that invited the entire city to participate in an art project in an area with several commercial vacancies. “The project got people excited to see their own art, and three properties found new occupants because of this work,” said Kozub.

Creative placemaking also enabled communities to better serve their residents during the height of the pandemic. When the staff of Beyond Walls, a placemaking nonprofit, realized that important health and safety information wasn’t being communicated to the residents of Lynn, Mass., they worked with artists to create posters encouraging people to wash their hands and wear masks. The nonprofit also created portable public hand washing stations and developed the “fold,” a modular barrier system that can be used to create outdoor dining spaces to encourage patronage of local restaurants while social distancing. Beyond Walls also worked to give area children a voice during the pandemic, creating a mural, composed of portraits of Lynn youth, that was placed on the outer wall of the community health center.

All of the Beyond Walls projects were possible, said company CEO Al Wilson, because residents, business, and government worked together. Real estate professionals can also be an important part of the equation. “I think REALTORS® play a really critical role in the community,” said Wilson. “They can help bring all parties to the table.”

NAR offers a placemaking grant for REALTOR® associations that are interested in building new public spaces and enhancing the community. Learn more at the REALTOR® Party website.

A replay of the webinar will be available at https://realtorparty.realtor/events/policy-practice-process-webinars.