This article is by Jessica Kemp, a vice president at the Center for Planning Excellence.

The arts provide a platform for civic engagement, spur cultural development and drive placemaking. But so often when it comes to community development, they are treated as an afterthought -- something that’s nice to have, but not essential.

And yet, incorporating the arts into planning is essential for healthy community growth and a powerful tool for community revitalization. We’ve seen how initiatives like The Walls Project have helped transform neighborhoods in our community.

The arts create stronger, more vibrant communities. Through planning, we can also create opportunities for artists in our communities to be part of planning for the future, to have a voice in the process and reflect that voice in the places we live.

With their rich and diverse cultural and historical backgrounds, Louisiana communities have a unique opportunity to invest in the arts and reap the economic and cultural benefits. So how can we plan for the arts in our community?

Building Partnerships with Artists

Many cities now have cultural ambassadors or artists-in-residence programs that make art a part of comprehensive planning efforts for neighborhood plans and programs from the beginning. They’re making art an integral part of the whole process, rather than an afterthought.

Brandan “BMike” Odums started off as a graffiti artist in New Orleans who wanted to use art to revitalize neighborhoods in his community. In 2013, he created a series of graffiti murals of iconic African-American civil rights leaders at the Hurricane Katrina-damaged Florida Avenue public housing complex in New Orleans’ 9th Ward. He named the murals #ProjectBe and the art installation received national attention, bringing people from all over the world to New Orleans. Now he’s partnered with the city of New Orleans to create murals and different installations throughout the city.

He helps revitalize his community through his art, which has paid off in economic development for the city. And we’re seeing more and more of this type of partnership. A number of cities like Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Seattle have created artist-in-residence programs to work alongside planning entities like the Department of Transportation to use art to help revitalize communities and improve areas of city planning like transportation. And the Washington State Department of Transportation recently became the first statewide agency to create an artist-in-residence program.

These types of programs bring creativity to design challenges. In Los Angeles, the Department of Transportation's artists-in-residence created interactive artistic elements for city bus stops. Minneapolis’ artists-in-residence used theater to help the city’s Housing Regulatory Services Department staff develop more empathetic policies that better served the needs of their constituents.

Incorporating the arts into planning processes brings critical inquiry and creative skills to the planning table, increasing community buy-in and fostering innovative approaches to solving planning challenges.

Using Art to Create Place

The arts are also essential for creating a sense of place and helping develop a community's distinct identity. They are a powerful connector of people to the places they live. George Marks’ work in Arnaudville is a good example. Arnaudville, a small Louisiana town with a rich cultural history, has tapped into that culture by investing in the arts to spur economic development. NUNU Arts and Culture Collective is part incubator, part platform for creative placemaking. Its goal was to make Arnaudville an arts destination in Louisiana. And it’s succeeded.

Marks, who grew up in Arnaudville and then left to pursue a career in visual arts, returned to his hometown to focus on using the arts to as a means to revitalize his small town community. His collective started off in 2005 as a studio workspace and venue for the promotion of local art. It quickly grew to feature works by 40 local artists. A kitchen was then added and then a stage for performances. By hosting events like a monthly potluck social, La Table Française, that featured exhibiting artists, the collective became a source of creative placemaking centered around Louisiana French language and culture that would inspire a rural arts movement.

Their creative placemaking isn’t limited to just Arnaudville though. It expands along the Corridor des Arts connecting the communities of Henderson, Cecilia, Frozard, Grand Coteau and Sunset, as well as throughout Acadiana. The arts corridor’s goal is to get people off of the interstates that bypass these towns by attracting them with what Louisiana does best -- good food, good music and good art.

What works about NUNU is that it taps into the authentic culture of Louisiana. The collective didn't want to “Disney-fy” their towns. Instead, they leveraged the arts to showcase the authentic cultural heritage of their community and attract people from across the country and the world to Louisiana as a cultural destination using a combination of art, music, dance and Louisiana French. NUNU Arts and Culture Collective shows how the arts can transform a place and help reverse the economic decline that happens to small towns.

Bring More People to the Planning Table

Integrating the arts into planning projects also allows communities to bring more people to the planning table. Community leaders are able to engage with more diverse voices in the community, and it gives those voices an avenue to be heard.

The work of New Orleans artist Candy Chang lies at the intersection of planning and art. Chang uses public spaces to create participatory public art. For her public art installation Before I Die, she painted a crumbling house in her neighborhood in New Orleans with the prompt, “Before I die I want to _____.” People in her neighborhood filled the wall with their personal reflections on life and death and their aspirations for themselves and their community. Her School of the Future exhibit included over 1,000 inflatable balls for participants to channel their childhood and play and created collective experiences for people to share what they wish they had learned in school. She put stickers on vacant buildings across New Orleans with the words, “I wish this was ___” to invite residents to share their hopes for these spaces. These types of participatory arts projects encourage people to be invested in the planning process in their communities by helping them voice their hopes and desires for their community’s future.

It was her influence that encouraged us to create similar opportunities to engage in participatory public art in the Government Street and Perkins Overpass Better Block demonstrations. We set up a large chalkboard wall with prompts that encouraged community members to contribute their ideas for improving these corridors while also getting to see what their neighbors had envisioned. Incorporation of this interactive art piece captured public input in ways that public meetings couldn’t.

Including public art in the planning process offers a different way to engage people that goes beyond one-time public meetings held after work. It helps make planning inclusive of all people, it helps the community create a unique identity and voice, and it helps cities solve planning challenges.