Category Archives: cultural district

Trend # 5: Creating Cultural Images for Cities and Places

In 2011, America’s cities will develop and launch strong, unique cultural images that describe their blend of culture, arts, creative, heritage, and historic assets.

That’s our fifth trend projection for 2011, in our Eleven Trends for 2011 Series.

The concept of place “branding” has recently been considered to have negative connotations, though it shouldn’t. A real brand is based on a depth of assets and the identification of the unique strength that links together the entire “brand portfolio” and makes it stand out from the competition. The very exercise of place-branding around culture, arts, creativity, heritage, and historic assets should help any city or region that goes through the process to understand and value its unique cultural assets.

Has your community gone through an asset inventory and analysis like this? Are you ready to build an internal and external image based on the best of your community’s assets? You may be surprised by what they are.

It always surprises me there are only two International Cities of Culture (a UNESCO designation) in the United States: Iowa City, IA for literature, and Santa Fe, NM for craft and traditional arts. Why not more? Why not identify the cultural strength of each community, of every size, and build a pride of place and celebration of excellence? And cities that have so much cultural vitality to show the world – and be proud of – make 2011 the year to create and celebrate an image that tells the world.

Trend # 3 for 2011: Culture privatization

Los Angeles is in the midst of reviewing proposals for the privatization of its many neighborhood cultural centers. Chicago is reviewing proposals for the private operations of its major arts and cultural festivals, long managed by the City. News is rolling in from other cities and counties of similar interests and possibilities.

As governments around the country and around the world face record deficits and intense voter pressure to identify savings, 2011 may see the operations of publicly funded culture up for sale to the highest bidder. We may be looking ahead to a year where cultural facilities long operated by government agencies are privatized or partially so, where festivals may go back to their promoter roots, and even where the work of grant making agencies – at least in part – is privatized. So, is this projected trend a bad or a good thing?

I’m going to believe that it is an opportunity for the kind of new management and operations models, partnerships, and collaborations that the field has sought. Inefficiencies will likely be reduced, and competitive private sector nature may mean new revenue opportunities for the smart nonprofits and for profits out there with the best business plans and capacity.

Here’s what is probably a very limited list of what we may see up for privatization in the coming year:

— Festivals. A no brainer, with privatization already underway as cities curb payrolls.
— Neighborhood cultural centers. These, too, are already under examination for privatization. Truly strong centers may emerge, and there will be more specialization as individual entrepreneurs both for profit and non-profit take on the job.
— Major arts and cultural centers and museums. There will be a trend toward joint operating agreements that partially privatize more of these. It is anyone’s guess how this will play out in programming and access.
— Cultural districts. Many of the best of these already operate as BIDs, and more will follow this route.
— Local arts councils/cultural councils. As cities shed commissions and councils, the job will fall to the private sector. But look to different “parent” entities. The cultural council of the future may be a division of already existing strong public/private partnerships, such as economic development or redevelopment organizations that are proven in the business of cause and effect.
— Public art maintenance. With growing public art collections comes growing maintenance and conservation responsibilities and the need for specialists that may create successful businesses.
— Grants management financial and data services. Once panels have decided on grants, the business of grants administration could be privatized to specialists who blend accounting, data management, and review systems together.

There is more, of course. The efficiency of entities such as the Denver Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, in which a staff of only four administer one of the largest regional funding systems for culture in the US, prove that low-cost/high impact models DO exist.

So, let’s consider all the silver lining opportunities that may be ahead. 2011 can be the year when all the talk of new savings and lower overhead approaches will turn to reality.

Eleven Trends and Action Calls for 2011

After a wild year of shake-ups, consolidations, and more, we’re looking ahead to a strong 2011 in the entire field of culture and the arts. Starting today, we’re offering our eleven trend projections for everyone in the field of cultural development, audience growth, and arts institutions.

December 27: 2011 Trend One. Cultural Tourism will return, bigger and wider and better than ever.. What, you say it never left? It did, and it has stumbled over the past few years.

Cultural tourism gave way as a top focus for destination tourism about six years ago to eco and green tourism, which motivated visitors and entire conventions to select green destinations, and led major destinations to focus on the green that could be found in their downtowns, districts, and more. Walkable tours, bicycling through cities, knowing that hotels were LEED certified, visiting LEED buildings – all this (and it is great stuff, don’t get me wrong) was promoted while culture took a back seat.

Word from tourism pros is that green is still very important, but that even the green-est of visitors are asking “So now that we have seen the green, where’s the culture?” and, “Is that all the culture that’s here? There must be more?”

Now that’s a challenge when it comes to delivering “comprehensive culture” in calendars and web sites. I don’t know about you, but I am frustrated even by many of the best visitor and resident oriented cultural and events one-stop-shopping calendars/marketing sites in these post-print days. There are turf wars in most US major markets – the arts and museums and passive recreation belong on one web site (so they feel) while commercial entertainment and pro sports go to their own sites (they don’t feel they should be picking up the tab toward supporting nonprofit culture) and tourism web pages pick up the pieces and try to bring the full local story together. In many (most) cases ticket sales take you off to another calendar, sometimes not to return. Some have names that don’t even turn up in most searches.

Does it work? No. The overall snapshot of the city or regional destination suffers from a series of one-sided views from each of the competing web sites, and the duplication in effort is ridiculous.

So, with my trend projection that cultural tourism will return as a top travel motivator comes my action call: PLEASE, let’s get really comprehensive web sites and calendars, with great instant ticketing embedded, that encourages visitors and locals alike to get involved with all that culture is. Yes, that includes sports, entertainment, architecture, food and beverages, everything arts, cultural, museums, parks, zoos, science, history, heritage, local hot spots and local legendary stops, shopping, buildings on the National Register, recreation, neighborhoods and cool places – in sum, really, really comprehensive.

2011: Bring back the culture in tourism marketing, and make it bigger and more interesting than ever.

Tomorrow: Trend Two.

The City of Architecture: Buffalo

Find the essence of place, and build on it. There’s no better summation of this cultural planning truth than the attached video on Buffalo. And there are few cities where so many groups have come together – CVB, economic development, business leaders, elected officials, neighborhood groups, arts and cultural organizations, even pro sports franchises – to redefine their city for future generations around architecture, art, and design.

Ed Healy – an incredible marketer and champion of Buffalo who heads the CVB’s marketing department – has for years believed that Buffalo’s legacy of breathtaking architecture – its magnificent necklace of parks with contemporary and historic public art, and its commitment to preservation evidenced by its multiple culturally vibrant residential neighborhoods and authentic cultural districts – make Buffalo as singular an attraction as its nearby natural wonder, Niagara Falls.

Having had the joy of working with Ed and so many others in shaping this theme of architecture, arts, and design into a winning cultural tourism strategy that has truly taken off over the past five years, I know first hand that this city I call “The American Story ” is rapidly growing into a major international cultural tourism destination.

The aim of the video is to promote Buffalo as the location for next year’s National Trust for Historic Preservation annual conference location. It tells its own story: the residents of this great city have geared up like never before to show the world their pride in place – their architecture, their art, and the great culture that is Buffalo. Every building, every block, every cultural organization, every garden, every sidewalk: this is a city determined to show its cultural greatness.

Anyone looking for a case study in redefining a sleeper city into a culturally shining star need look no further. Go to Buffalo.

Cultural Councils for the Future

I love arts councils – or cultural councils, culture and heritage councils, whatever they may be called – and have probably clocked well over a half million frequent flyer miles just on working with this structurally vital segment of the cultural and creativity sector. Out of the cultural councils that haven’t folded or been eliminated due to budget constraints, my bet is that at best only 30 percent are both healthy and focused on future-oriented needs as opposed to the traditional services and rationale. The field needs a radical remake: cultural councils have to get out in front again to make a substantive difference in saving and transforming community arts.

1. My calculations in reviewing thousands of Form 990s from scores of metros around the county suggest that at least 70 percent of United States arts and cultural nonprofits either have on-going structural deficits, have such low (or nonexistent) working capital – or have both dilemmas – that they are as stuck as Sisyphus, constantly trying to roll their institutional rocks up the hill only to watch them slip back down. Cultural councils know (and have championed) the cause of fiscal health, but at the same time they get stuck furthering the bad practices. An example is when I see a cultural council devote four months’ staff time and hundreds of volunteer hours to “pass through” $10,000 in state grants into ten $1,000 grants, at a negative cost benefit ratio of easily $50,000 administration for the $10,000 in grants. This is neither a smart business practice or making wise use of limited resources. (In fact, I have to wonder what the state agencies that have passed this yoke along are hoping to accomplish.)

Instead, cultural councils should be facing the dragon straight on: putting their constituencies’ structural deficits on the table, calculating the needed working capital, and defining new business approaches that can turn things around. Right now, there is a huge opportunity in helping nonprofits to digitize and sell tremendous amounts of e-product, and there are new opportunities in beneficial mergers and subsidiary development. Unfortunately, not many cultural councils can seem to get away from those maddening re-grant cycles to study, gain expertise, and lead their constituencies toward this point.

2. Cultural councils have largely adopted the creativity-sector language and inclusiveness made popular by Richard Florida, but have dragged their collective feet in expanding their services to the larger creative sector that goes far beyond nonprofit cultural groups. I recently attended a cultural commission meeting that opened with one of the commissioners telling the story of her daughter’s most recent business and financial successes with international public art commissions, and of how she has built a solid business based on sophisticated marketing plans and business strategies. That same commissioner went on to wonder at the dichotomy between the way the council sees individual artists – step children who should perhaps form local nonprofit associations – compared to the way artists create successful businesses.

Those councils that have small business development programs, start up loans, training in international sales and marketing and who even represent their constituents on trade missions overseas are on the right track, but they are the distinct minority. Yet in an increasing number of US markets, there are more for-profit artists/cultural/heritage businesses than nonprofits. This shift to for-profit cultural businesses is particularly profound among young creatives, who almost unanimously tell me they have absolutely no interest in founding nonprofits. They’d rather look for venture capital.

(I know one such creative who was recently fired by the board of the theater company he founded – by the board members he’d recruited – because he couldn’t “win” enough grants. He walked away from the nonprofit model, found investors, and is in the business of producing shows booked year round by dozens of casinos around the country. Business keeps rolling in. Dollar for dollar, he’s now the biggest player in his local cultural community, but has real difficulty fitting into the framework of the “arts community” served by the arts council.)

3. Cultural councils know that arts education in the United States is almost more of a mess than it was twenty years ago. Rounds of budget cuts have eliminated many bright spots developed over the past decades: magnet schools for the arts have ended, and little to no (or backward) progress has been made in enforcing arts learning standards. Record numbers of students are headed to music conservatories and art schools, but symphony orchestras, opera companies, and art galleries are closing and eliminating jobs and career paths. At the same time, there are entirely new creative fields waiting to be explored.

There are marvelous national and international models in which councils lead in fostering local-level understanding and curriculum that pairs creativity and innovation, targeted as much as fostering the creative inventors of tomorrow as encouraging new innovations in the arts. These should be the manifestos that cultural councils champion, the pilots they support.

4. Many cultural councils have extensively justified the economic impact of arts and culture, and deserve great credit for elevating the discussion of culture as an economic sector. It is vital, now, that they take the next steps of working hand in glove with their municipal planning departments, economic development commissions, business improvement districts, CVBs, redevelopment agencies, and other stakeholders to anchor economic development with arts and creativity enterprise and venues (for profit and nonprofit alike).

The best and the legendary cultural councils are doing this, and have been showing results for years. When cultural councils put together investment groups to build hotels and condominiums, lead the charrettes for redevelopment zones, help corporations work through how they can include theater spaces in bank buildings, determine the unifying elements and principles for zones, downtowns, suburbs, corridors, gateways and more, they are demonstrating culture as real economic development.
Time for a change? The exciting news is that many foundations and corporate leaders see the potential and are striving for change. Economic development commissions are taking increasingly active roles in fostering new thinking. Academics from MIT to community colleges are making the arts-innovation-invention links. Municipal planning departments are asking their cultural councils to lead in shaping unifying principles for development projects. CVBs are taking the lead in rebranding their communities around cultural assets. Exciting new thinking is underway. Our challenge? Make this the norm for the next generation of cultural councils.

Boomers – the New “Seniors” – and Cultural Development

Today’s entry is the start of a series related to changing social and economic conditions that impact cultural development and cultural planning. The past few years have brought about such dramatic changes to cultural interests, participation, and economics that we’re headed into a whole new era of cultural planning. Unless your cultural plan is REALLY up to date, it is time to face the future and consider new goals and strategies.

Boomers are one of the biggest factors in the future of cultural development, so I wanted to write this in advance of Tom Brokaw’s special on boomers (March 4, replays March 6) to point readers toward the show and to stir up thinking about the boomer/young seniors impact on cultural development and audiences.

As Brokaw will point out, younger boomers can and will (pending the economy) move to desirable places for their early retirement, as opposed to older retirees, who are more likely to stay put. So, what do young boomers consider to be desirable places? Here’s AARP’s top 15 list:

Loveland, CO
Las Cruces NM
Rehoboth Beach, DE
Portland, OR
Greenville, SC
Sarasota, FL
Ann Arbor, MI
Tucson, AZ
Montpelier, VT
Honolulu, HI
Santa Fe, NM
Atlanta, GA
Northampton, MA
San Diego, CA

Interesting list, isn’t it. Natural Beauty trumps in most cases, followed by aesthetic beauty, and then by a good healthy dose of culture. It is also very interesting to see how many smaller communities in all climates, are included. (But then, Brokaw himself has a place “just down the road” – as we say out here in Montana – near another high beauty-strong cultural life community favored by boomer-new “seniors,” Bozeman.)

What does this list of aesthetically rich top new-seniors places mean for cultural development?

1. Count on what has been a promised out-migration of young seniors from big metropolitan areas. (A 30%-40% out-migration among affluent young seniors is projected from New Jersey, alone, in the next few years.) If yours is a community that is banking on the new young seniors to foot the bill for annual contributions to major arts organizations or other nonprofits, and to buy the tickets for those events…caution, the road is about to become pretty rocky. On the other hand, if yours is a smaller cultural center in a young-seniors-desirable place – let’s say a place like Concord, NH’s Capitol Center for the Arts – you are probably entering into a really good ten years. And, if you are building a culturally focused walking oriented creek-side (complete with trout) community like Easton’s planned SILK Creative Community, the odds are better and better that those big city losses will be your gain. Point: small communities that invest in cultural vibrancy and aesthetic excellence will benefit by gaining high yield new seniors who have the time, money, and interest to be local investors and leaders. Think about positioning your community to be competitive through cultural development, and reap the rewards.

2. The new seniors grew up on Woodstock, not Wagner, as their cultural foundation, and have much less relationship to traditional performing arts than their elders. That means that though they have the money and cultural interest to “age into” traditional arts consumers, there will be a smaller subset of this generation interested in classical music or ballet than their elders, without question. And, it means they are much more oriented to “festival” extravaganzas and traveling for their major cultural fix than their elders. Local doesn’t necessarily have to be the end all for them, so they will be content to live what AARP calls the “simple” life in their smaller towns and hop on a plane (economy willing) to take in a great performance at an iconic destination.

3. The new seniors are experience junkies – always have been – while the older seniors have always been more passive in their arts consumption. Older seniors volunteer as docents: younger seniors study painting with diligence. We are entering a time of unprecedented opportunity for arts-lifelong-learning. For decades, we’ve tried to build arts participation by concentrating on the young. Now it is time to concentrate on the young seniors. But don’t stay shallow: offer depth. The younger seniors don’t want the simplistic one hour intros to pottery their mom’s liked when they were 80. This group is more likely to build a complete studio in their house, and construct a state of the art kiln in the back yard than to take an “enrichment” course. In other words, you may have fewer people buying tickets for Beethoven, but your town may be selling more pianos, and your best bet for a new cultural arts center may be to include learning space where top pros provide instruction.

4. Finally, let’s return to that list of the top 15 desired locations. Young boomers will want to move to places where there is design excellence, historic preservation ordinances, public art, park systems with aesthetically pleasing areas for individual recreation (trails, bike trails), and cultural opportunities ranging from great libraries to unique music venues. They also want a community that celebrates its cultural image and identity rather than brushes it aside in favor of other brands.

All this is good and challenging news for cultural development. Remember, these are people who will increasingly choose to move to a specific community based on doing careful research and comparison. Has your cultural plan positioned your community to win at this?

Fight Stress: Practice Creativity

One of my favorite (new) LinkedIn network groups is SOAR! Rise Above, Grow Beyond. I recently got drawn into a discussion there about how to de-stress, and it led me to contemplate that for so many in the arts world as everywhere, stress has become so intense that is has almost eaten up the very soul of our love and our field – our art. So I was reminded, in that SOAR! dialogue, of what we all need to do. We need to remember that we are creative, and we need to devote a portion of our time every day, every week, to create. That’s all of us, not only the artists among us.

Think of the word itself – to create, from creation, re-creation, to re-create. There is more to (re) creation than working out to recreate our bodies and minds. Creation is a sacred process that strengthens our central ability to de-stress. Yet, while we are a people are very comfortable with talking about recreation – go to the gym, take a hike, ride a bike – we are not comfortable talking about creation. Creation, our central strength, is missing from our public selves.

But especially during times of stress, in our most creativity-centered of all industries – we must remember to strengthen our ability to innovate and lead through creativity.

Paint. Compose. Write a poem today. Sing. Play the piano. (Today is Chopin’s birthday and I plan to carve out a few hours of time alone at the piano to refuel my soul through some of that glorious music.) Write a book even if you never plan to be a published author. Paint a room or a watercolor. Read a play out loud, as though on stage. (No one needs to listen!) Take your camera into the outdoors and see nature’s creativity through the lens. Go get some clay, and a potter’s wheel, set them up in your basement, and start throwing pots. Become a metal sculptor! Creativity rebuilds, refocuses, reconnects us to all. Creativity is easy to lose, easy to think we lack, especially when surrounded by technology and a world of worry and red ink. But without creativity, there is no problem solving, no innovation, no break through clarity, no new ways of seeing.

A cherished book on my bookshelf is “Trust the Process: An Artists Guide to Letting Go” By Shaun McNiff (1998, Shambhala Publications, USA). If you can find it, buy it, and be inspired.

McNiff, who is an artist and a university administrator, delves into what it means to be creative. As he writes, “Creativity requires the ability to relax in periods of uncertainty and to trust that the creative intelligence will finds its way. The education of imagination involves giving up what I call ‘ego’ control. It requires an inclination to step into the unknown as well as the ability to persist when there is no end in sight. … The process (of creativity) is a route; sometimes it is tangled and at other times it opens to us with the directness, speed, and pleasure of a water slide.” McNiff goes on to say, “A personal place of creation is a grounding influence and a partner through every phase of expression. …Maintain (your)artistic workspace as a sanctuary, a place at home where creative expression is nourished and regenerated.”

Do you have a place to nourish your creativity? Make one!

Creativity is the root of innovation. It is the heart of problem solving. It is implicit in “ideating” things in a fresh way, Ironically, it is what our creative field needs most, right now, to survive and thrive once again, when standard operating approaches are no longer standard, and ways of “sustaining” nonprofit cultural organizations must be created fresh, and when we have to completely re-envision how to connect with a public so stressed that people have lost their interest even in attending, viewing, or participating in creativity.

Creativity takes practice. (Interesting, isn’t it, that “practicing the piano” or its equivalent is really about practicing creativity?) As McNiff says, “The process of creation is a force moving through us, and only through practice do we learn how to cooperate with it….the skilled artist is the one who is always responding and compensating for the changing winds of the creative process. Nothing is ever the same. Conditions are infinitely variable. Each engagement presents a new challenge, and that is the defining quality of creative practice.”

We have a lot of new challenges ahead in our world of the creative, the cultural and the arts. New models must be shaped to replace those out of date and proven obsolete. New thinking must breathe fresh enthusiasm into our entire arts and cultural system. So it is more important now than perhaps in decades for everyone in the field to remember to be a creator, to exercise those creative capacities.

As we head toward a much sought after spring (even that first crocus through the snow…) our field needs to think a lot about re-creation. That means everyone in it needs to get out there and exercise those creative capacities.

Practice creativity.

SILK – a Creative Community Moves Toward Development Despite Recession

When leadership and teamwork are combined with vision and expertise, even a down economy can’t stand in the way of progress. We’re thrilled to pass along word that the redevelopment of the huge Simon Silk Mill complex in Easton, PA has passed the next great milestone, with the completion of the architectural and site plans. Construction is anticipated to begin in 2011. We were the arts and cultural planners called in at the start of the process, and it is a true joy to see a venture of this scale continue. Easton’s visionary Mayor, Sal Panto, Jr. deserves tremendous credit for strongly backing the concept of the mill property as a center for the arts and culture that will, in turn, continue to position downtown Easton itself as a cultural hub. Also hugely deserving of credit is Lafayette College, which has been a solid partner with the City in supporting the creation of what has now been branded as SILK, A Creative Community.

A number of this blog’s readers participated in discussions about SILK as a potential home for their studios and creative work. I think you’ll be as thrilled as we are with the progress that has been made.

For more information, see release

America’s Treasures Need You, Now!

Interest in America’s historic buildings, places, streets and landmarks has dwindled for years. Many say that after the Bicentennial high point of national pride in Revolutionary War-period America, it has been one long downhill for American history.

Nothing could more unfortunately symbolize our nation’s declining value for America’s heritage and historic sites than the President’s proposed Federal Budget for 2011. As a part of the President’s cost savings for the domestic budget, he has proposed completely eliminating funding for Save America’s Treasures and its related educational and outreach program, Preserve America. He stated in so doing that the programs “weren’t working well.” The White House officially said that the programs lack performance metrics so their outcomes are not clear.

The last time America’s history and historic preservation was so threatened at the Federal level was in the early 1980s.

Why should you care?

How about the American Flag, the one tattered and torn that flew through the night and inspired our National Anthem? It was saved by Save America’s Treasures.

How about Ellis Island? Saved, after long dismal years of neglect, by Save America’s Treasures.

How about Valley Forge? The lessons in courage in the founding of America. Saved, by Save America’s Treasures.

How about Cannery Row of John Steinbeck’s vivid telling? Saved, by Save America’s Treasures.

How about those Main Street projects that have transformed small town America? Saved, by Save America’s Treasures.

How about the list of the most threatened sites in America?

The unique and nearly lost ironwork of Galveston Island. Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece Unity Temple, falling apart from decay and lack of funding. They’re just a few of the most threatened of 2009. A few more years’ decay and they will truly be history. Knocked out of a chance for Federal funding to spur a match, their chances for survival are vastly diminished, and will no doubt cost a great deal more to restore in future decades.

As for the idea that Save America’s Treasures and Preserve America are not “working well?” Every Save America’s Treasures project requires a FULL match in non-Federal dollars. The Preserve America communities that get a nod of recognition usually go on to build a vibrant new economic base through their realized historic revivals. By any measure, it would be beyond comprehension to say that these don’t work well.

Did the two programs actually do enough to count, some might ask? To date, they have been directly responsible for saving 1200 of America’s treasures in all 50 states.

Do these programs hurt America’s tax payers? Never have. They were to be funded in perpetuity by a percent of the revenues of offshore oil and gas leases on the Outer Continental Shelf. But this is to be robbed by the proposed White House budget bill, to be used for other purposes other than the intended and federally mandated “preservation of ecosystems, buildings, collections and objects” that have national significance.

The proposed cuts will also dramatically impact our country’s National Heritage Area funding: the President has proposed a 50% cut. What are National Heritage Areas? A program of the National Park Service, National Heritage Areas are those that tell the vital stories of America, places like Buffalo’s Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor, or the Yuma Crossing of the Colorado River, a gathering place for over 500 years, (and now, an important wetlands restoration project. The Hudson River Heritage Corridor, the historic whaling port of New Bedford, and the Northern Rio Grande were all vitally helped toward restoration and preservation through the NHA funds.

America has long been described a country that doesn’t value its art. Now, it appears we have come one step closer to being a country that also doesn’t value our history and the heritage of our land.

Can we afford to let this happen?

Beauty, Culture, and Communities

Beautiful Places-Florida-Mellander-Stolarick 2009As a cultural planner, I spend a considerable amount of time thinking about culture and community development, culture and our economy, the arts and culture as community priorities. Heading into the new year, I’ve been seeking new inspiration along these lines. I’ve found that inspiration, and want to share it!

I just finished reading the research paper “Beautiful Places” written by Richard Florida (University of Toronto), together with Charlotta Mellander (Jonkoping International Business School) and Kevin Stolarick (University of Toronto), published by the Martin Prosperity Institute. The three studied the role of aesthetics and beauty in community satisfaction and determined that both beauty and perceived aesthetic character have a highly significant positive impact on perception of a community by residents. They also tested the importance of these so-called “higher order” factors in location choices – for example, how important these might be in selecting a community in which to live, or in a corporation’s selection of a new location and how perceptions of aesthetics and beauty relate to other community elements such as quality schools, transportation, and cultural offerings. Does the aesthetic quality of a community improve civic engagement, and to what degree? (Answer from the study: YES, and HUGE.)

To answer their questions, the trio worked with the Gallup Organziation, which conduct telephone surveys of 28,000 respondents throughout the US.

This extensive level of surveying is rarely afforded within arts and cultural realms, so its import is high. This large sample made it possible to study perceptions of the importance of aesthetics based on demographics and as related to jobs and economic security and positive or negative expectations about the future. The key question they asked was: “Taking everything into account, how satisfied are you with the city or area where you live?” And they asked: “How would you rate the city or area where you live on” a whole host of factors, ranging from the ability to meet and make friends to cultural opportunities, quality health care, quality colleges and universities, nightlife, climate and more.

Here’s one of the really interesting outcomes: they found that there is NO relationship between community satisfaction and life stage factors such as age, presence of children, length of residency and other demographics. This contradicts many other studies that have found community satisfaction increases with length of residency, or that have found young adults to be less satisfied with their communities than older residents.

On the other hand, they found aesthetics, beauty, and culture to have statistically important relationships with levels of community satisfaction. Beauty and aesthetics appear to be the among the very most important factors contributing to community satisfaction, right up there with economic conditions and what I’d call community friendliness – a place to meet people and make friends. Cultural opportunities rank nearly on par with affordable housing, and are more important than climate, job opportunities within the respondent’s own field, and the “urbanicity” of the area. Cultural opportunities did not rank as important as “religious institutions that meet your needs” or as important as outdoor parks, playgrounds and trails. Of note, the respondents rated their own communities “vibrant nightlife” and “quality of colleges and universities” negatively – but but important.

What does this mean in cultural development and planning?

1. Aesthetics, be they natural or built, are obviously very important to community satisfaction, but are often under-considered and stressed within the context of cultural plans, development, preservation, and funding.

2. There is a considerable linkage between community satisfaction and cultural opportunities – remember, on par with or ahead of other critical factors. The authors were surprised that cultural opportunities didn’t rank higher. I wonder if question wording/understanding played a role in this. “Quality parks, playgrounds and trails” is very easy for a respondent to understand and rank. I find most people have difficulty when asked to quickly do a mental sort of “cultural resources” and almost never come up with similar or thorough lists of what these include. That said, culture offerings came out of this study as clearly very important.

The rubber hits the road in cultural planning when the finished plans, complete with aesthetic and cultural development aspirations, reach the desks of community prioritizers – city councils, county executives, key local foundations, and the many other stakeholders who weigh the investment importance of each priority they fund. Many a time I have heard them say flat out that cultural development can’t possibly be as important as affordable housing or job opportunities, but this huge Gallup survey sample shows that they are wrong. Culture matters. And aesthetics and beauty are right up there – ahead of “being able to get from place to placd with little traffic,” quality health care, and parks – in a cluster of the high ranking important factors: 1) current economic conditions; 2) Beauty; 3)quality schools; 4) good place to meet people and make friends.

This means that historic preservation, design regulations, landscape, public art, street scapes, civic facilities that facilitate public gatherings and interaction, cultural districts, and wide ranging cultural amenities are all of demonstrated and tested high order importance to communities throughout the US, with implications for any community, anywhere. It also means that the creators, the artists, the nonprofits, the cultural entrepreneurs whose enterprises create meaningful aesthetics, civic gatherings, and cultural infrastructure are vastly more important than most civic leaders have dreamed.

Our field often uses what can be, and is often dismissed as, a basic level economic justification – the jobs and economic impact of cultural organizations and particiaption. This study finds a much higher economic justification in the elements we plan for in cultural development – the very future of community satisfaction, growth, and choice.

The impact is huge. To every civic leader, every developer, every funder, planner, and prioritizer: beauty matters, aesthetics matter, culture matters.