Creative Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-belongong

By Roberto Bedoya

A favorite song of mine is “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered…” the Ella version that is warm, radiant, where your feel each word in pure tones. Ella sings about love; a blind love and the escape from that bewitchment.

This is the song that plays for me in the background when I think about the practices of “Creative Placemaking”, which as an arts manager and policy maker, I define as those cultural activities that shape the physical and social characteristics of a place. I embrace Creative Placemaking and its aspiration as is manifests in a variety of methods —from city planning to art practices with a goal of advancing humanity. But I am bothered by what I consider a significant blind spot – a blind love of sorts – in the Creative Placemaking discourse and practices. I am referring to a lack of awareness about the politics of belonging and dis-belonging that operate in civil society.


“I’m wild again, beguiled again
A simpering, whimpering child again
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered – am I”

… Wild can be fun. Beguiled? – the jury is still out on that one. The lyrics raise the question for me about what I perceive and suspect (in some instances) is a blind love associated with Creative Placemaking practices. How do we understand and talk about Creative Placemaking – is it the narrative of potentiality and its bewitchment that is bought, sold and traded upon in management practices or its engagement with spatial justice; the empowerment of talent, of community? These contextualizing concerns inform my work and the questions I am asking here.

Artist and architect Bill Mackey's project maps transit routes based on people's actual uses and place names

In my work I’m in dialogue (and often in debates) with peers across the county about Creative Placemaking prompted by two significant philanthropic initiatives: The National Endowment for the Arts “Our Town” program and ArtPlace —a collaboration of numerous public and private foundations that are investing in Creative Placemaking projects nationally. What I’ve witness in the discussions and practices associated with Creative Placemaking is that they are tethered to a meaning of “place” manifest in the built environment, e.g., artists live-work spaces, cultural districts, spatial landscapes. And this meaning, which operates inside the policy frame of urban planning and economic development, is ok but that is not the complete picture. Its insufficiency lies in a lack of understanding that before you have places of belonging, you must feel you belong. Before there is the vibrant street one needs an understanding of the social dynamics on that street – the politics of belonging and dis-belonging at work in placemaking in civil society.

The state of our society is under a great deal of stress triggered by the continuing recession and its challenges to our economy, the growing plutocracy’s abuse of our civil right, the Cultural War 2.0 battles over women’s rights to control their own bodies, the rights of Union workers, the rights of Mexican American students to study Latino literature, the right to be free of racial profiling, the right of gays and lesbian to marry their loved one, immigrant rights…you can add your own example of the politics of dis-belonging  at work in civil society. The nation is far from perfect. A troubling tenor of Creative Placemaking discourse is the avoidance of addressing social and racial injustices at work in society and how they intersect with Creative Placemaking projects.

Youth at Tucson's Finding Voice project read and inscribe the urban environment in their own ways

Against this background, Creative Placemaking practices must understand history, critical racial theory, and politics alongside it spatial planning and economic development theories, which dominate the discourse. How race, class, poverty, and discrimination shape place – through a politics of belonging or dis-belonging— needs to be reflected upon when one is engaged with Creative Placemaking practices as an artists, funder, developer, NGO or governmental agency.

One needs to reflect upon U.S. History and its troubling legacy of “Placemaking” manifested in acts of displacement, removal and containment.  This history is long and horrible, from the development of Native American reservations, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the internment of Japanese Americas, to the 60’s urban redevelopment movement that destroyed working poor and ethnic ethnic-specific neighborhood across American cities using the language of blight alongside bull-dozers. How is Creative Placemaking different or complicit with these actions?

What are the imperatives that infuse Creative Placemaking activities? What are the visions of our humanity that is manifest in the plurality animated by Placemaking activities? It’s ethics?  How do these ethics inform policies that support the distinctiveness and identity of a place?

Field School participants huddle to analyze an artifact and the memories and questions it evokes

Placemaking in city/neighborhood spaces enact identity and activities that allow personal memories, cultural histories, imagination and feelings to enliven the sense of “belonging” through human and spatial relationships. But a political understanding of who is in and who is out is also central to civic vitality. How do current Creative Placemaking practices support this knowledge?

Creative Placemaking activities’ relationship to civic identity must investigate who has and who doesn’t have civil rights. If Creative Placemaking activities support the politics of dis-belonging through acts of gentrification, racism, real estate speculations all in the name of neighborhood revitalization then it betrays the democratic ideal of having an equitable and just civil society. Is the social imaginary at work in Creative Placemaking activities the development of enclaves of privilege where the benchmark of success is a Whole Foods Market?

The task for us who work on Creative Placemaking activities is to assure and sustain a mindful awareness to what is authentic in Creative Placemaking. The authenticity I am invoking is grounded in the ethos of belonging.  Cultural and civic belonging – how to created it; how to understand and accommodate cultural difference in matters of civic participation; how to enhance the community’s understanding of citizenship beyond the confines of leisure pursuits and consumption; how to help the citizens of a place achieve strength and prosperity through equity and civility. Having a sense of belonging, therefore, needs to be fore-grounded in Creative Placemaking practices.

Detail of Workers Transit Project's map

As a policymaker I argue for the aesthetic of belonging as central to Creative Placemaking. The blind love of Creative Placemaking that is tied to the allure of speculation culture and its economic thinking of “build it and they will come” is suffocating, unethical, and supports a politics of dis-belonging employed to manufacture a “place.” Creative Placemaking and its aesthetics of belonging contribute and shape our person, the rights and duties of individuals crucial to a healthy democracy that animate the commons. It should also animate Creative Placemaking not as a development strategy but as a series of actions that build spatial justice, healthy communities and sites of imaginations.

Ella’s “Bewitched, bothered and bewildered” song ends with some words of witnessing:

Wise at last, my eyes at last,
Are cutting you down to your size at last
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered – no more”

“No More” is the assertion social and cultural activist must use to dispel Creative Placemaking’s allure and its bewitching blind love affect. Let us support the ethics and aesthetics of Creative Placemaking grounded in belonging and have the wisdom of Ella’s witness to blind love gone wrong. Let us reflect upon the work of Creative Placemaking and ask if the activity is engaged in a politics of belonging or dis-belonging. Does it suck-out creative life or support it? Is it ethical and just? And let our answers to these questions be central to our self-reflections and discussions of impact, of outcome, of success and failure in the work being done.


The images that accompany these remarks are examples of arts-based civic engagement projects supported by the Tucson Pima Arts Council’s P.L.A.C. E.  (People, Land, Arts, Culture and Engagement) Initiative.  Launched in 2008, P.L.A.C. E. has funded 45 projects to date.


  1. Tucson Meet Yourself: Field School
    • Provide workshops to train adult learners on the methods, ethics, and significance of folk life, community asset mapping, and digital photographic documentation of cultural traditions.
  2. Bill Mackey: Worker Transit Authority
    • Presented events that incorporated performance, graphics, and data in a participatory manner designed to facilitate discussion about the issues of land use, infrastructure, transportation and the environment.
  3. Finding Voice
    • Engages refugees and immigrants at Catalina Magnet High School to develop their personal and community voice through literacy, visual arts, and civic engagement.

Note: This eassy was originally posted on Arts in a Changing America, a great new resource documenting artistic practices that deepen the level of understanding of the impact that changing populations, cultures, and aesthetics are having on the American arts community.  Check the original posting for comments made in response to the essay here.