Kevin Wright has a background in creativity. Originally a journalist, he was a producer and photographer who spent his days capturing people’s stories.
But he says he became interested in more than telling those stories; he wanted to shape them. After getting his master’s in urban planning, he joined a fledgling community development corporation. He helped turn it into a successful organization that runs the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation in Cincinnati. And then he launched Yard & Co. with Joe Nickol, where they interweave urban design and development strategy with hyper-local get-it-done creativity.
Wright also wrote the book on “creative placemaking.” He and his team at Yard & Co. created “The Neighborhood Playbook,” a field guide that shows communities how to design neighborhoods where people want to spend time, create memorable experiences and connect with the built and natural environment. He’s one of the featured speakers at the 2018 Louisiana Smart Growth Summit, created by the Center for Planning Excellence.
We asked Wright about urban planning, about finding the right story within a community and about creative placemaking.
How does your background in storytelling help you as an urban planner? Why are stories important for placemaking?
There were so many stories that just aren’t being told about neighborhoods. Mostly the media covers crime and other negative stories.
That's always been a starting point for me when I think about placemaking — stories. Our goal is to uncover the story of a place, one that’s authentic and has value, but most people don't know it's there. It's a big way we approach our work.
How do you uncover those stories? How do you figure out what story the community residents want told?
We talk about it in terms of supply and demand. The supply side is the things like financing for property acquisition or for property demolition, or stabilization of restored buildings or tax credits.
What we think is missing too often is the demand-creation work. That's where we operate a lot of times at Yard.
In other words, if you have some outsiders coming in with a top-down. supply-heavy approach where they're going to fix all the problems for the community, a couple things happen there. One, the community is not included, so they get upset. That's oftentimes when problems with gentrification and concerns about displacement come out. We try to focus on community residents and stakeholders being involved in the demand-creation process, from the planning stages through actually shaping the design of the neighborhood.
Two, if the demand side isn't happening, if there's no market creation happening, then the supply side becomes really a compromise of what people want it to be because the market is not there.
So you build a building with retail on the ground floor, and the retail stays vacant because there is no demand creation. We have a saying in the industry that retail follows rooftops. In other words, you can't have retail until you have residential density. So community developers approach it from the perspective that they need to build 200 housing units before they can even think about having a coffee shop.
Things have changed so much in our industry, though, that rooftops now follow retail. If you can create two or three amenities on a block, then people will buy housing in that neighborhood so they can walk to a coffee shop or a bar.
And from a policy standpoint, it's cheaper to subsidize the opening of a coffee shop than it is to open 200 units of housing.
What does creative placemaking mean? Why is it an important part of placemaking?
Buildings can be assets even when they're blighted. Creative placemaking is thinking about how you can make it look like someone cares about it in the short term. That would include turning the boards on vacant buildings into public art. It allows the community to hold the ground before you can put actual windows back in the building.
These buildings offer constant creative programming opportunities. They create an outdoor room, a space with walls that you can play around with.
How does a place’s culture or history impact your work?
People want something authentic. You think about how products are sold nowadays — people are looking for something authentic, organic. They want to be closely connected to where it comes from, what it is, the history of it, why it's being made.
There is a really powerful connection that comes from utilizing the history and the culture of a particular place or neighborhood, whether it has a long jazz history or African-American history or Latino history.
This connection between the history and the place can help to mitigate or reduce the negative impacts of gentrification. People can potentially begin choosing the place for the right reasons, not just because it's cool and hip with historic buildings, but because of its authentic, rich history.
One example is Bellevue, Kentucky. In their business district, there was a building that was vacant. The community wanted more restaurants and bars — more evening nightlife in their business district. It went dark at night.
So they used the “Playbook.” They spent some time thinking about what they wanted programming to look like around the vacant building and what the story of Bellevue, the brand, was.
Bellevue, Kentucky is right across the river from downtown Cincinnati. The Bellevue folks decided to put their flag in the ground and just own their Kentucky brand. They created something called the Old Kentucky Makers Market. They programmed the parking lot of this vacant building with Kentucky beer and bourbon and Kentucky music and the whole nine yards.
Hundreds of people showed up every weekend. A young couple bought the building, continued to work with the event and are now under construction to open something called Fairfield Market, which is going to be a bourbon bar and market.
Ohio has a very weak brand in Cincinnati compared to Kentucky because Kentucky has a great cultural brand nationwide. People know it as bourbon and horses and bluegrass.
What advice would you give to community organizers who want to revitalize their neighborhood, even one that’s facing issues of blight or poverty?
Our advice is to focus, focus, focus. Pick a corner. Pick two or three buildings. It might take five years, but if you can get those buildings rehabbed and redeveloped, it will start to have a ripple effect throughout the neighborhood, and over the course of a longer period of time, a lot of those larger problems will start to go down.