News & Updates

Creative Perspective: What is Creative Placemaking; and How is it Changing the Face of Our Communities?

foundation | May 2018

Leonardo Vazquez of The National Consortium of Creative Placemaking

Leonardo Vazquez is a national award-winning planner who is a leader in two emerging fields in urban planning: creative placemaking and cultural competency. He has two decades of experience in community development, community engagement, small group facilitation, local economic development, leadership development and strategic communications. He has worked with a wide variety of communities in New Jersey, California, Connecticut, Louisiana, New York and Pennsylvania.  Creative Perth Amboy, a plan he developed through Community Coaching, received the 2016 Outstanding Plan – Municipal award from the American Planning Association New Jersey Chapter.


Tell us a little bit about your organization. 

The National Consortium of Creative Placemaking started with a question:  “Why are some communities so much more successful at improving their quality of life through the arts than others?” The answers led me to several conclusions:  You need leaders everywhere in a community to support the arts, you need to integrate arts into the fabric of the community in strategic and meaningful ways, and you need to connect as many people as possible from around the community – especially the people who can make things stop and the people who can make things go.

So we focused on helping people build connections, capacity and community for creative placemaking.  Having run adult learning programs since 2000, I know there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to learning.  Some people just want a light touch – like a webinar – while others want a deep learning experience – such as what we offer through Community Coaching or the Certificate in Creative Placemaking.

Community Coaching is like a 6 to 9 month studio class for members of a community.  We assemble a diverse group of people to build a creative placemaking plan – the Creative Team — who then guides the implementation of the plan.  Creative Team members build their knowledge and skills in creative placemaking and collaborative leadership.  The Certificate in Creative Placemaking is a 10-month program we produce with New Hampshire Institute of Art to help students refine and master the craft of creative placemaking.

Crowdmapping workshops   image: Gabriel Halili


Tell us a little bit about yourself – how did you get into this line of work? 

I started as a newspaper reporter covering communities, then became an urban planner. I also studied public administration while getting my planning degree. That’s where I learned about collaborative leadership and why good ideas alone aren’t enough to change people’s minds.

I’ve focused my work on community and local economic development; that is, improving quality of life and enhancing standards of living in neighborhoods, towns and cities. I’ve worked for nonprofit organizations, universities, and consulting firms. I’ve been at it now more than 20 years.

Like many urban planners, I spent much of my career thinking that arts were nice, but not as important to communities as things like housing, parks or roads.  So when I was asked by an arts advocacy group about 10 years ago to do a program on arts and planning, I thought, “This will be fun.  A nice break from the serious stuff.”

But as I learned more about the impacts of the arts on people and communities as a whole, I realized that arts and local cultural activities were as serious as the other elements of community building.  And I also found that engaging arts and local culture is among the most cost-effective ways to create lasting impacts in a community.  With housing, parks and roads, you might have to wait years to see any changes. And many people don’t want to wait that long.  With arts and local culture, you can get things done in weeks and months.  And though each project may be a small ripple in the lake, together over time these projects can create waves that can shape the community.

As an urban planner, I learned about the importance of physical design and regulations to communities. As a student of leadership and social behavior, I knew it’s not enough just to focus on the objects in a place.

I also learned that it wasn’t just about the art and cultural ‘products.’  When people engage in artistic practice, they become more creative and open to new ideas.  When they engage in cultural activities, they reconnect with their heritages, or understand other people better.

And in a time when many people are challenged by change – social, cultural, economic, environmental – the most important tools we need are creativity, openness, and being able to combine the best of the past with the opportunities of the future.

We hear the words “creative placemaking” everywhere right now.  What exactly is creative placemaking?

Creative placemaking, in short, is about making places better through creativity and local culture. This has two orientations – growing local arts and cultural activities and being creative in how we make places better.

There’s nothing new about using the arts to make communities better. It’s been going on for at least 120 years in the United States, and even longer in Europe. What makes creative placemaking different is that it is about strategically connecting arts and local culture to social and economic issues in a community.  So, installing a statue or creating a cultural district alone isn’t creative placemaking. What makes is creative placemaking is designing and managing those things so that they can make the community better.

What does ‘better’ mean?  That’s a question for the people who live, work, play and pray in those communities.  And it’s important that the people who answer those questions reflect, as much as possible, the diversity of those communities.

It’s harder than it sounds.  Though people in communities may share the same physical spaces, they often live and operate in silos.  People from one church, organization, business, neighborhood or region don’t work together – or sometimes even engage – with people from different areas.  So a lot of the work of creative placemaking is getting people comfortable working with one another, and building meaningful partnerships.

We’re not talking about getting together for one or two meetings and just simply saying what we all agree on.  In true partnerships, people share the risk, rewards, blame and credit. That’s how we build stronger, more resilient societies.

So creative placemaking, for me, now, is more than just about making communities’ better places to enjoy.  It’s about building more civil and better societies.

Community artmaking event   image:  Leo Vazquez


How is creative placemaking changing the face of communities around the country?

Well, it’s bringing more arts to more places, and helping people feel better around their communities. It’s also making more people aware of or smarter about issues affecting their communities. It’s also bringing people together who might not otherwise come together.

One of my favorite examples of this was the creation of a mural behind a community center in Morristown, NJ.  The traditional way of doing this work would be to have an artist simply put something nice on a wall.  And this would make some people happy, but do little for a lot of others.  But the way the Neighborhood House mural was designed and created, with many residents of this diverse town, makes it a great example of creative placemaking.


You are partnering with Tamarack Foundation for the Arts to bring a Creative Placemaking Leadership Summit to Charleston, WV in June of 2018.  Tell us about that.  How do we get involved?

We’re very excited to be working with the Tamarack Foundation to bring this event to Charleston.  Leadership Summits bring people together to explore new ideas and innovative practices, and learn the how-to’s of creative placemaking.

We have five regional Leadership Summits scheduled in 2018.  The Appalachian Summit will focus on topics that are important for the whole region: Local economic development and community wellness, building arts ecologies in isolated areas, invigorating arts in smaller communities, creative placemaking in industrial and post-industrial communities, placekeeping/ protecting the ethos of a community, building effective partnerships with elected officials, leaders of local non-arts-related businesses, and nonprofit organizations, building local arts communities, connecting to regional and larger arts markets, and mapping creative assets.

We’re also excited to be partnering with and getting support from ArtPlace America, FestivALL, Greater Kanawha Foundation, and Mortimer and Mimi Levitt Foundation.


Learn more about the conference and register at:  www.cplsummit.org.  Be sure to follow the excitement on our Facebook page and Twitter handle and sign up to get updates on the conference.