Incorporating Art Into Your Planning Process

Whether a colorful mural brightening an otherwise-bare wall, a trail adorned with temporary or permanent public art, or a wastewater treatment plant enhanced by interpretive arts elements, cultural resources and art improve the sense of place and community everywhere from workplaces to small towns to major cities. Arts and culture add vibrancy and connectivity to communities, providing opportunities for people with different life experiences to connect with each other and engage with each other and the communities in which they live, work, and play. The MetroFuture regional plan envisions a 2030 in which both metropolitan Boston and suburban and regional centers will have both the capacity to support artists and vital artistic resources such as arts organizations, cultural institutions, parades, and festivals.

Artistic resources and events such as arts organizations, cultural institutions, parades, and festivals add vitality and culture to towns.

Urban planners are in the unique position of being able to directly shape the nature of art and culture in their towns through policy and planning. Art and culture doesn’t have to be 18th-century statues and paintings – urban planners can encourage the continual creation of art for public spaces and inspire cultural projects within their towns.

In August 2015, MAPC established the Inner Core Arts and Planning Working Group, which is advising on the development of an Arts and Planning Toolkit, which won the 2016 American Planning Association Massachusetts Chapter Outstanding Planning Project Award. The toolkit is a resource for municipal staff and planners interested in planning and community development projects that engage arts, culture, and the creative community. The kit provides a menu of strategies, key terms, suggestions for sources of funding, and examples of real-life projects within and outside of Massachusetts.

A key concept highlighted in the toolkit is the idea of creative placemaking. Creative placemaking is a planning process that places arts at the center of shaping the character and vitality of neighborhoods, cities, towns, and regions. The key to creative placemaking is to integrate art and culture into community revitalization work. By focusing on a defined geographic area and encouraging community participation in arts and culture projects, planners can easily identify goals and indicators and involve artists, individuals, nonprofits, and residents.

In general, these types of projects are most successful if they’re focused on the community rather than having the sole or primary focus of attracting outside tourists. Successful implementations of arts and planning projects detailed in the toolkit include examples of how art and culture can be a component of planning, land use, transportation, economic development, housing, infrastructure, public health, and public safety projects.

For example, at the Brightwater wastewater treatment plant in Washington, a team of artists, architects, engineers, landscape architects, and educators worked together to design the plant to include public art. Multiple project teams consisting of engineers, biologists, and outreach staff were asked to include an artist at an early stage of the process. In addition to this collaboration, a group of artists created the Brightwater Art Master Plan, which identified zones for integrated permanent and temporary artworks throughout the 70 acres of open space in the treatment facility. The plan led to the commissioning of 11 artists to produce work for the plant, and, as a result, the plant became a community gathering space, exhibit hall and educational center on the life cycle of water, the treatment process, and the geography of the area.

In another example, Marty Pottenger, a Portland, Maine-based playwright and performance artist, partnered with the City of Portland to create a creative place-making initiative, which resulted in two projects advancing the city’s social cohesion and equity goals. After a confrontation between police and a Sudanese man led to the man’s death, the chief of the Portland Police Department reached out to Pottenger, expressing interest in an initiative that would diffuse tensions. Pottenger wrote and produced a play, which resulted in two performances involving police officers and a group of local youth and led to a reduction of reports of police and youth conflict. In another project, Pottenger aimed to decrease tensions between the immigrant and refugee community and the city departments. Monthly meeting were convened which included city councilors, the Police Department, Public Services, Health and Human Services, the Housing Authority, the Fire Department, EMS works, unions, and community leaders, during which there was facilitated discussion on civic and social tensions combined with art making. This led to the creation of temporary and permanent art installations, including benches, murals, and painted light poles.

Currently, MAPC is working on several projects to bring arts, culture, and creativity into the planning initiatives in local communities. In Arlington, MAPC is working with the Town of Arlington’s Department of Planning and Community Development, the Arlington Commission on Arts and Culture, and others to develop an Arts and Culture Action Plan and engage Arlington residents, workers, and the creative community in visioning an action agenda to help Arlington support a thriving arts and cultural life for all. This project involves an extensive public input process that includes surveys, focus groups, and public events.

In Wakefield, MAPC staff are working with the town and the Albion Cultural Exchange Committee to create an economic development plan focused on the arts and highlighting the work of local artists.

To learn more about how arts and culture can add value to your planning initiatives, check out the Arts and Planning Toolkit. For questions about the toolkit or topics like cultural planning and creative placemaking, contact Jennifer Erickson at