In a recent press release by yet another downtown hotelier, Savannah is described as a “coveted destination,” an “emerging” city and a “rising tourism hub.”
The release cites Savannah's inclusion in Conde Nast Traveler's Best U.S. Small Cities list and as one of Travel + Leisure's Top U.S. Cities in 2018. It also mentions Savannah as one of American Express Travel's top trending U.S. travel destinations for 2019 and describes the Hostess City as one of the “up-and-coming destinations vibrant with culture and experiences you can't find anywhere else.”
As public relations copy goes, it's a fine bit of celebratory rhetoric. It's great to hear all these wonderful things about Savannah, but to what end? What exactly is it that makes Savannah so appealing? With all due respect to developers with deep pockets who want to stake their claim on Savannah's tourism gold rush, Savannah's appeal doesn't lie in its prevalence of places to lay your head and store your luggage. And like a gold rush, Savannah is at risk of being stripped culturally bare.
The path forward
Much has been made of the rabid development Savannah has been seeing in recent years and it's to the city's credit that so many people are up in arms about the unremitting race to build new stuff. But simply opposing new development isn't the answer. The city needs to collectively figure out what the path forward actually looks like.
There are a lot of smart and capable people who are working on this issue, but there's only so much that citizens can do if their elected leaders aren't listening or are actually working at cross purposes regarding the will of the people.
One of the most relevant ways Savannah can harness its creative capital to inform its future is through the concept of creative placemaking. Coined in 2010 in a white paper for the National Endowment for the Arts, creative placemaking is defined as an effort where “partners from public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities.”
The paper goes on to explain that “creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.”
Public art, culture
The idea is to expand the idea of public art and culture to include not just murals and statues, but also an array of creative efforts. The goal is to not just beautify a city or town, but also to define its character, and to use the arts as an economic driver, a community revitalizer and a blueprint for neighborhood design.
In the scant eight or nine years since the idea was introduced, creative placemaking has exploded across the country and the world as a way of defining a place and enhancing what makes individual locales unique. What works for one city might not work for another, and that's the beauty of creative placemaking. Its definition is infinitely elastic.
The American Planning Association helps further define creative placemaking as “a process that engages community members, artists, arts and culture organizations, community developers, and other stakeholders using arts and cultural strategies to implement changes community members would like to experience.”
As such, each city's approach is tailored to each city's needs. And it isn't just about art for art's sake. It's about community development and enhancement. As APA states, “This approach aims to provide outcomes that improve vibrancy and economic conditions, and builds capacity among residents to take ownership of their communities.”
The nonprofit planning, design and educational organization Project for Public Spaces further defines the concept as “an integrative approach to urban planning and community building that stimulates local economies and leads to increased innovation, cultural diversity, and civic engagement.” They cite efforts by the NEA and organizations like ArtPlace America, which has been on the forefront of creative placemaking projects across the country.
ArtPlace provides some of the best examples of creative placemaking projects that have been implemented in the last few years. They include a number of arts-centered redevelopment projects like Detroit's Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, which used “a network of artists, designers, engineers, legal and business professions, planners and residents to explore ways to reactivate existing architectures.” Or the Jamestown Arts Park in North Dakota, which transformed a vacant lot into a thriving cultural space. Or the Charleston Rhizome Collective in South Carolina, which worked with local artists to develop a mobile app that uses community arts events to help create a “more robust economy for both sole proprietors and small businesses.”
Though ArtPlace is a 10-year project that is beginning to wind down, they provide one of the best models to build upon. If you visit Artplaceamerica.org, you'll see their investments categorized around issues like agriculture and food, economic development, education and youth, health, housing, transportation and more. The possibilities are truly endless.
Savannah is in a perfect position to capitalize on these types of efforts and the best part is, we get to decide what that looks like for us. But we need our elected and non-elected leaders to listen to community needs and act on them accordingly. We also need communities to be active participants. If citizens and leaders don't put forth the effort to be more deliberate in how the city develops, Savannah is at risk of losing what makes it special.
As the American Planning Association explains on its website, “While the creative placemaking process results in changes to social and physical spaces, it is also an opportunity to build relationships between diverse partners. A key element in the creative placemaking process is to have stakeholders engaged early in the process. This provides opportunities to look at community challenges in an inclusive manner, gathering and deciding on creative placemaking actions based on a variety of community perspectives.”
Kristopher Monroe is a writer documenting the intersection of art and community. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @savartscene.