Public art as a creative placemaking strategy has the potential to forge strong community bonds and a greater sense of belonging. There is some healthy skepticism, however, regarding the extent to which any resulting community development benefits low-income minorities in urban areas, especially when public art is treated as an object created for a community (often by an outside artist) rather than alongside a community.
In "Inclusive Creative Placemaking Through Participatory Mural Design in Springfield (MA)," (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 89, No. 3), Lara Sucupira Furtado and Jessica Morgan Payne examine how Fresh Paint Springfield, a mural festival held in Springfield, Massachusetts in 2019, was a model for engaging with the community in a participatory and collaborative process that enhanced the community in several ways.
Three criteria in particular made for a particularly successful execution:
- Meaningful engagement
- The means by which artists and residents participated
- Designs that were reflective of the people they served
Fresh Paint Springfield
In 2018, an RFP seeking to install a mural in downtown Springfield was released in hopes of prompting some placemaking. The problem arose that respondents to the RFP were unable to secure permissions from building owners, whose skepticism highlighted one of the challenges of wrangling the public art process.
The following year, the local nonprofit arts organization Common Wealth Murals (CWM) proffered the idea of Fresh Paint Springfield to civic leaders —a mural festival in which 10 large murals would be installed in the city's downtown over the span of 15 days.
This larger, more holistic approach attracted support from multiple institutional players, after which CWM was able to secure the 10 sites for the murals from building owners more easily with their buy-in. CWM also curated the selection of artists and designs to ensure they reflected the rich history and cultural diversity of Springfield.
For the largest mural, CWM selected GoodSpace Murals, a company whose specialization in community-engaged mural design was a crucial component to the success of Fresh Paint Springfield. This main mural consisted of giant paint-by-number panels, allowing anyone to help paint regardless of age, ability, and language. The "paint parties" hosted to create this mural broke with the traditional model of a singular muralist possessive of the end product, giving a sense of ownership and pride to participants. What's more was that residents themselves were the subject matter of the mural, further elevating the stature and sense of belonging in residents who otherwise may not have felt perceived as assets to the city.
CWM wanted to capture the community impact of Fresh Paint Springfield as a means of garnering future support and funding on similar projects. It began by conducting in-depth interviews with festival sponsors, funders, and building owners and how murals were perceived as public investments for the cultural and economic longevity of the city.
The scope of data collection expanded greatly, however, once muralists arrived and began engaging with Springfield residents, CWM witnessed a special kind of experience happening, and thus wanted to document insights from citizens involved as well.
By directly participating in the process of creating the murals, residents relayed a sense of ownership and pride in the community, and could literally see themselves and their city on the walls they were creating.
As one muralist put it, "Change is happening with them and for them versus something that's happening to them," which embodies a strategy of warding off intrusive gentrification that might result in their displacement by validating the presence and value of the residents currently living there. The murals became a vehicle of empowerment among minority residents to claim common space as their own.
Despite the success of the project, the authors also note some of the limitations of their documentation, such as the findings only being reflective of one specific event and based on a limited number of interviews. They hope that future evaluation might include a broader swath of Springfield residents who may have participated in more limited roles in order to identify and learn about gaps in community engagement throughout the project.
The process and product of the Fresh Paint Springfield mural festival gave residents a shared sense of pride and appreciation. By depicting the culture and members of the local community and fostering an inclusive engagement strategy throughout the entirety of the process, creative placemaking strengthened the community, giving greater cultural ownership to residents and solidified their place in the community.
Institutional stakeholder buy-in was also critical to coordinating logistics and fundraising necessary for realizing such an undertaking.
Finally, increasing accessibility to artists and dissolving the power differential between artist and community deepened the sense of ownership over the product and was generative of even greater opportunities to work on together.
The Journal of the American Planning Association is the quarterly journal of record for the planning profession. For full access to the JAPA archive, APA members may purchase a discounted digital subscription for $36/year.
Top image: "Tribute to Black Women" mural in Springfield, Massachusetts. Originally painted in 1974 by Nelson Stevens, it was recreated with community collaboration by the Community Mural Institute in 2022. Used with permission from Common Wealth Murals.
About the author
Lucas Flint is a master in urban planning candidate at Harvard University.