Helen Davis Johnson on Placemaking- Arts and Entrepreneurs

Helen Davis Johnson Speaking at the 2011 MML Convention in Grand Rapids

Helen Davis Johnson is a friend and an accomplished placemaker in Chattanooga, TN, having co-founded CreateHere. I recently asked Helen to share some thoughts on a few topics for the Economics of Place blog. As expected, she makes some great points on what it takes to build thriving, competitive communities. Enjoy the read.

Q1. What is the greatest promise of placemaking for American cities?

ArtPlace believes that art, culture and creativity expressed powerfully through place can create vibrant communities, thus increasing the desire and the economic opportunity for people to thrive in place. It is all about the local.” – ArtPlace 

Interesting places attract interesting people. Cities that develop an increasingly large talent pool will be successful 21st century cities.   Great places boast a strong identity; offering good food, and stimulating entertainment.  In a strong city, there is access to successful educational systems, real opportunities to earn a respectable wage, to make valued connections and to be safe.  These amenities are not accidental; they are the result of good planning and creative placemaking.

Without relevant options such as these, cities today lose credibility with bright, talented people.   In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, one in which cities are competing to develop and attract talented citizens, engagement in creative placemaking activities is no longer optional.

Talent retention and attraction is undeniably one of the single most important factors in the success of cities in the 21st century.  People power places.  It is critically important that within the context of a good placemaking process, a city develop a deep culture of opportunity, access and openness.  In turn, real investment in talented people with great ideas will encourage both the supply and demand that feed local economies.  The demand for amenities that is created by well-educated and creative individuals builds market opportunity across sectors.  To fill this demand, skilled entrepreneurs with the right capitalization and knowledge investment develop products and services ranging from artisan shops and non-profits to tech companies and dry cleaners.

Q2. Is placemaking a tool for large and small cities alike, or does the practice lend itself to communities of all sizes?

To have a strong country, we must have strong cities.  While it is important to have a dependable tax base and to maintain a viable population, placemaking is less about size than it is about recognizing authenticity and addressing challenges with ingenuity,

MakeWork grantee Shaun LaRose paints s mural off Main Street

creativity and cross-sector collaboration.  No matter the size of our neighborhoods or scale of our cities, we must embrace and celebrate the distinctive qualities that are inherent to each place.  Active appreciation allows each of us as citizens, as cities and as America to be truly great.

Q3. Is there one place that you hold up as a standard for effective placemaking? Perhaps something you have witnessed or worked on? Could be a region, city, neighborhood, block, etc.

While each place is unique, many of the same principles regarding placemaking can be applied to each.  Good people, strategic thinkers, solid support and strong funding combined with cross-sector collaboration guided by realistic goals and measurable results are a few of the things that I’ve learned to take very seriously in my work.
I’ve been fortunate to be deeply involved in placemaking in Chattanooga, TN.

In 2007, I co-founded an organization called CreateHere. Immediately upon coming to life, CreateHere set up a brick-and-mortar studio/gallery/co-working space on Main Street.  Main Street, at the time, was at the beginning of what continues to be an interesting and exciting journey towards revitalization.

In five years, I’ve witnessed the growth of over 220 small businesses, led by both artists and traditional entrepreneurs.  This has happened because of the fact that there was access created to valuable information about how to successfully run a business.  Artists and artisans have been provided with capital to invest in their work and in the local economy.  They are repopulating our urban neighborhoods (to the tune of 4-million dollars worth of home sales) making new work that makes the city more distinctive, paying for studios and hiring new employees. Through the visioning process Stand over twenty-six thousand Chattanooga area residents were given a platform on which to engage in a new community-wide conversation about issues big and small.

These opportunities have presented the possibility for our local culture to really experience a powerful paradigm shift in thinking and action around local issues.

CreateHere has been at the core of an intentional and unique convergence of small movements in design, arts and music, urban planning and slow food, nostalgia, entrepreneurship and more.  The increasingly well-developed sense of place has created an important crossroads for the place that Chattanooga has been and the place that Chattanooga goes next.

STAND- Civic Engagement in Chattanooga

CreateHere has been a five-year long laboratory for social innovation and creative placemaking activities in Chattanooga.  I’m extremely proud of the work of my team and the impact that our programs and their participants have had.  This year is off to a blazing beginning and while I am certianly spending some time looking back, what excites me is what is ahead.  What I’ve learned in my journey with this work has been that no matter the ups and downs along the way, it’s been worth it.  I can’t wait to engage in similarly compelling opportunities ahead, putting arts and culture at the heart of placemaking.

The Springboard business planning class

You can follow Helen on Twitter at @helenjohnson and on Facebook.