Representing Our Town: Theorizing National Endowments for the Art's Urban Placemaking Strategies


Yang Li, University of Toronto

Urban community development through culture became predominant over the past few decades as the concept of “creative placemaking” gained popularity around the world. The publication of 2010 white paper “Creative Placemaking” by the National Endowments for the Arts (NEA), along with the launch of the organization’s national placemaking project “Our Town” in the same year, marked the peak of a national movement in reconstructing the cities’ images through arts and culture. While cities around the world have engaged in various forms of creative placemaking processes in the past decades, the concept of creative placemaking has been fuzzy in definition and often controversial in practice. This analysis investigates the applications from 570 awardees of the “Our Town” project in the ten-year period from 2011 to 2020 to examine how this national level project envisions the concept of creative placemaking, and how such vision have changed over the course of the decade. I find that creative placemaking as envisioned through Our Town has significantly departed from the earlier economic-centered and exogenously powered creative placemaking models. Instead, it turned to a more grassroot-oriented, endogenous model of creative placemaking by fostering the growth of local enterpreneurial ecosystems. Our Town project concentrated on smaller, locally focused arts project that fosters a double pronged growth of both economic and community growths. These projects are often smaller in size and scope, drawing greater emphasis on smaller communities instead of major metropolitan areas, are more geared towards localized culture creation and consumption, and seek to inspire systematic changes in the community.

This paper will be presented at the following session: