Up From the Roots: Economic and Cultural Equity in Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts


In the spring of 2009, the Arts + Community Change Initiative[1] began working with various partners to explore the power of neighborhood-based arts and culture as an integral part of equitable, democratic, and culturally vital communities. The Initiative was responding to the vision, sustained needs, and creative resilience of low-income communities. It was also responding to a moment in time when the economic crisis and heightened civic engagement encouraged people to rethink how creativity can be part of a transformative vision for the future.

Roundtable discussions were convened in several cities across the United States between 2009 and 2011 to better understand the growth of “naturally occurring cultural districts”—grassroots, culturally based efforts that are bringing about significant changes within a variety of communities—and to learn from their successes and challenges. These discussions brought together cultural district leaders, artists, neighborhood activists, planners, elected officials, community and industrial developers, foundation program officers and trustees, public agency directors and staff, researchers, and others from around the country. The spirited dialogues aimed to develop more informed public policy around naturally occurring cultural districts and more strategic investments by public and private funders. They also served to advance networking and learning among practitioners, local government, neighborhoods, and nonprofit organizations.

Sponsors of these discussions included the Arts + Community Change Initiative, Arts & Democracy Project, Center for Rural Strategies, Ford Foundation, Fourth Arts Block, InCommons, LA Commons, Los Angeles County Arts Commission, LA Department of Cultural Affairs, Surdna Foundation, and the Thai Community Development Center. They took place at the Archibald Bush Foundation, St. Paul; Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation, New York; Neighborhood Funders Group annual meeting, New Orleans; J. M. Kaplan Fund, New York; Los Angeles County Arts Commission, Los Angeles; and Surdna Foundation, New York.

This report presents key findings and offers recommendations distilled from these roundtables. It also contextualizes the phenomenon of cultural district formation in the United States within the fields of community planning, municipal policy, economic development, and the arts. We distinguish between “naturally occurring cultural districts” and those that result from large-scale, planned investments—developments in which large-scale private and/or public “flagship” projects are focused on major cultural institutions or entertainment facilities. The context for both kinds of cultural districts or clusters is truly global, and research has examined the nature and impact of such districts in many parts of the world.

While most of the attention to naturally occurring cultural districts has been in cities, they have also emerged in small towns and rural areas, and these efforts were also addressed in the roundtable discussions. It is our hope that this report will contribute to the ongoing dialogue and lead to better understanding of the role of culture and grassroots organizing in community development. The collective experience of practitioners, supporters, and partners within naturally occurring cultural districts has produced a depth of experience relative to the more recently branded practice of ìcreative placemaking.î This growing field of practice has only begun to emerge and to reflect on and assess assumptions, strategies, and needs of the field. This report also hopes to contribute to that process.

Emerging values and practices  

Through case study presentations, the naturally occurring cultural districts represented in the roundtables expressed and exemplified a series of underlying values important in their organizing strategies. They fuse culture and community building with placemaking and economic development. Shared characteristics show that they:

• Are rooted in community-based cultures and identity

• Build on asset-based strategies

• Bridge diverse cultures, ages, and economic means

• Include and recognize cultures equitably

• Are led by empowered local leadership

• Increase civic capacity through cross-sector partnerships

Key strengths and contributions to communities

Throughout the roundtable discussions, participants cited a number of benefits.  In general, naturally occurring cultural districts play a critical role in revitalizing the sense of community spirit and connections among diverse stakeholders. They improve blighted and abandoned neighborhoods or town centers, repurpose historic buildings, and bring economic activity into neglected areas.

Participants cited ways naturally occurring cultural districts improve the quality of life, generate new tax revenues, reduce crime, and contribute to creative and cultural growth. Often they contribute to education, develop new leaders, and bridge racial and generational divides. They utilize and improve existing building stock and help guide new development that better fits a community’s needs, aspirations, and identity. Because they are locally led and emerge through community-based efforts, they contribute to social cohesion while improving neighborhood conditions. These results stand in contrast to externally driven or flagship-style approaches in which real estate development and replacement of older properties are designed to cater to new residents and produce profits that typically leave the immediate community. This often weakens community bonds or polarizes older and newer residents. According to discussion participants, naturally occurring cultural districts typically:

• Create collective efficacy

• Provide sites of opportunity for community visioning and planning

• Sustain and build on community diversity

• Sustain and build on cultural and community heritage

• Foster creativity and innovation

• Build collaborations and partnerships

• Improve physical conditions of local neighborhoods

• Attract visitors as contributors to the local economy

• Contribute to community stability

• Create new economic opportunity

• Build the capacity of local cultural and civic organizations

• Engage young people in community life

Key issues facing naturally occurring cultural districts

The roundtables sparked rich and varied discussions about both the challenges and opportunities of this emergent field. Practitioners, policy makers, philanthropists, and others identified a range of issues and questions facing naturally occurring cultural districts:

• Honoring and preserving organic growth

• Increasing the capacity for sustained organizing

• Determining the value of formal designation and place identity

• Finding a role within formal planning, governance, and economic development

• Assessing outcomes

• Maintaining community stability

• Sustaining local services and amenities

• Allowing for varying degrees of municipal capacity and cooperation

• Recognizing local assets

• Improving access to financing tools and strategies for small-scale activities


From each of the roundtables a variety of recommendations emerged. Some were explicit and detailed, others broad. Some participants raised questions that remain unanswered. All drew on experiences of the planners, policy makers, nonprofit leaders, artists, researchers, funders, and others who participated. Many recommendations are directed to policy makers, some to funders or researchers, and some to practitioners who are implementing, managing, or acting as partners within cultural districts. Recommendations have been grouped into three areas:

Planning and policy

• Apply context-sensitive approaches

• Respect and work with local networks

• Support artists, self-employed workers, and entrepreneurs

• Recognize diversity as an underlying strength

• Connect policies across silos

• Provide for mixed-use affordable spaces

• Combine regulatory and incentive-based tools

• Designate a municipal liaison

• Foster community-driven planning

• Factor in cultural impacts

• Allocate and sustain accessible space for creative activities

• Incorporate preservation of historic assets and other community treasures


• Employ strategies that leverage local assets

• Organize around affordable housing and space for creative work and             business  

• Build cross-sector coalitions

• Share best practices and offer peer support

• Stress diversity and inclusion

• Integrate lifelong learning opportunities

• Develop strategic communication plans


• Strengthen networks internally with support and technical assistance

• Provide support for planning and placemaking in the context of community visions

• Invest in mentorships, peer networks, and support for entrepreneurs

• Support immigrant entrepreneurship

• Support local leadership development

• Promote cultural district demonstration projects

• Validate successful districts through casemaking

• Provide funding and investment equitably

• Leverage resources from within and from outside each community

• Remove bureaucratic impediments and structural barriers

Research and questions for further discussion

Qualitative and quantitative analyses are needed to assess cultural practices, community engines of change, and policy/planning needs in naturally occurring cultural districts. Two promising examples of such assessments include the work of the Social Impact of the Arts Project at the University of Pennsylvania and the Urban Institute’s Cultural Vitality Indicators.

Many questions were raised during the roundtable discussions related to success indicators, community-based cultural work, and local economic development efforts in the context of the creative economy and social equity. Some may be the subject of formal research; others may provide topics for similar roundtable discussions in the future or be addressed in other venues.

Full report can be downloaded here

[1] The Arts + Community Change Initiative was incubated at the Pratt Center for Community Development.  In 2011 it became part of the Arts & Democracy Project.