Branding Distinctiveness: A Placemaking Initiative Leverages Communities’ Arts and Culture
A placemaking initiative leverages communities’ arts and culture to help them thrive.
It would be an overstatement to say a parking lot in Athens, Tennessee, is being paved over for a paradise, but a $20,000 grant from the Lyndhurst Foundation is helping turn a vacant lot in the community into a “pocket park,” a creative hub for civic engagement, public gatherings and art projects.
This is one example of a community enhancement program in Greater Chattanooga made possible by an initiative that promotes creative placemaking. This 10-month Thriving Communities economic development program through the Thrive Regional Partnership guides citizen teams in identifying arts and cultural assets unique to their community and teaches them how they can be used to spark growth.
Thrive was created to optimize community development opportunities, enhance regional connectivity and preserve natural
landscapes within the 16 counties that make up Greater Chattanooga. Towns and cities interested in participating in Thriving
Communities must form a team and go through a competitive selection process. Teams are encouraged to prioritize diversity, with members representing different roles and backgrounds.
Uncovering Cultural Strength
Teams selected to participate in the program begin by completing an asset mapping exercise facilitated by Thrive. During this activity, local teams invite members of their community to jot down on sticky notes arts and cultural assets exclusive to their area. Depending on the community, the qualities brainstormed might be related to musical and visual art or even stories of their past.
“These are all things that people have in their community, and when they can showcase them, they’re always a natural driver, and it brings people together,” says Bridgett Massengill, president and CEO of Thrive. “You can use that to help demonstrate the cultural story of your community.”
Since the program launched in 2016, participating communities all over the region have brought to light unique qualities of their area to celebrate. For example, Whitwell, TN, which participated in 2018, highlighted its rich coal mining history. Ducktown, Tennessee, a participant in 2016, brought forward the fact that the community could be seen from outer space in the 1900s. While
copper mining provided jobs for many individuals back then, logging as well as the smelting process used to separate copper from rock eventually led to 40 square miles of orange desert, which stood out among surrounding vegetation.
“It doesn’t matter your size. You have a story to tell, and that’s what we’re doing,” Massengill says. “We are uncovering those stories and then helping these communities figure out how to leverage it for economic success.”
After unearthing their cultural assets, teams use them to influence community development ideas, which they later put to the test in their city or town. Making Lasting Impacts At the end of the program, teams have the opportunity to apply for up to $20,000 in
seed grant funding through the Lyndhurst Foundation to make their ideas reality.
Whitwell, for example, is building a historic replica of its old train depot and transforming it into a community center with open green space. The center will be rebuilt with timber from the original structure found in a community member’s barn. The space will help anchor the community and serve as a gathering area for performance and visual art.
As for Pocket Park in Athens, artists, landscapers and design architects will collaborate to create art installations, interactive features and pop-up events. The park is already impacting the community, sparking other developmental projects and community engagement events.
Fifteen teams have participated in Thriving Communities since its inception three years ago. In 2018 alone, the initiative engaged more than 200 volunteers, connected with more than 100 artists and generated more than $100,000 in monetary and in-kind contributions.
Giving communities a sense of autonomy and creating opportunities to enhance and promote their cultural attributes contribute to the long-term sustainability of the region. Plus, the transformational process of placemaking provides these communities with the creative confidence they need to “grow from within” for decades to come. “It is an opportunity for them to engage in a very professionally driven strategic planning process that their community doesn’t have to fund,” Massengill says. “It’s something that Thrive takes on because we get the purpose and the vision, and then it helps us to be invested in seeing them succeed.”
Written by: Val Beerbower and origionally published in Livability.com.