You know it when you are there - when you walk down a street or turn a corner and say, "let's turn back" or "let's go further". Every place each of us has ever been to has elicited these thoughts, yet what is it that pulls us toward or away from somewhere?
In urban neighborhoods and town centers alike there have been hundreds of studies, presentations, and a lot of head scratching, to answer just that question. Over 30 years ago communities across America had the realization—and the resulting "uh oh" moment—when facing the disastrous results of urban renewal. Since then, numerous groups and organizations have wrestled with finding the solution to a perfect alchemy for downtown revitalization.
Yet, it is not rocket science. People want to live in, work in, and visit places that are clean, welcoming, and have that certain zing that engages our being. These are the neighborhoods and communities where we feel safe, entertained, and connected. We also need to feel that we've gotten what we came for. Goods and services that go beyond just our basic needs will also instill in us a feeling of wanting to return.
So what is the "secret ingredient" of a successful neighborhood? Creativity.
Creativity may be seen in the "creative financing" of private/public partnerships that is necessary for rehabilitation of underutilized buildings, and sensitive infill construction of vacant parcels. Or in "creative thinking" that is required when seemingly divisive groups come together to form like-minded goals and objectives for the greater good of the community. But it is undeniably the "creative people" who put it out there for us to experience with all our senses, that allows a place to reach and sooth the subconscious.
Since 1980, the National Main Street Program has utilized a comprehensive "Four Point Approach" to revitalization: Design, Organization, Promotion, and Economic Revitalization. The design aspect of the program strongly emphasizes consistency and high quality of standards in all its applications, from proper rehabilitation of historic buildings to signature in-store graphics.
More recently, the Creative Communities movement has defined a successful creative community as one that capitalizes on "... the vital linkages between art, culture and commerce...to meet the challenges of the rapidly evolving post-industrial, knowledge-based economy and society".
In 2009 Providence rebranded itself "The Creative Capital" and backed up that hubris with efforts to retain artistic talent cultivated at such schools as Rhode Island School of Design, Brown University, and Johnson and Wales. Successful cultivation and retention can be credited to the state's 1998 initiative of tax-free arts districts that encourages artists to live and work in select communities and neighborhoods.
As such, the venerable AS220, a non-profit arts center and housing complex, has successfully rehabilitated significant historic buildings, and in doing so, has transformed a despondent downtown Providence into the Downcity Arts and Entertainment District. Since 2000, the Pawtucket Arts Collaborative has been nurturing artistic talents and creative awareness and has recently completed rehabilitation of the historic Lorraine Mills buildings. Synergistically, promotions like the ambitious Gallery Night Providence event series has been attracting over 10,000 people to explore, socialize and be inspired.
Historically, all neighborhoods were composed of makers, storytellers, builders, fixers, singers, bakers, tailors, etc. They lived among and depended upon the average consumer to appreciate, need and purchase what these talents had to offer. Today, by recognizing creativity as a commodity, we infuse economic health into communities that also nurture history and humanity, and therefore cultivate uniqueness of place.
The Providence Preservation Society recently facilitated a symposium "Beyond Buildings: Preserving the Livable Neighborhood,” where national experts came to Olneyville to talk about healthy and successful urban environments. During an energized panel discussion, Jay O'Grady of ONE Neighborhood Builders proposed that it is not enough to just attract people to neighborhoods; we need to have neighborhoods that make people want to stay.
With equal parts inspiration, aspiration and creation, that's a recipe for success.
by Sheila McElroy