Social Practice Arts In Place | Dr. Cara Courage AoU

Dr Cara Courage AoU (credit: Rob Orchard)

Dr Cara Courage AoU (credit: Rob Orchard)

I have recently completed a PhD in placemaking, looking specifically at that placemaking which has an arts and social practice aspect to it and an attention on these arts as a means of urban revitalization, something which I came to term social practice placemaking.

The research was concerned with grassroots arts-led interventions in the urban realm, participated in by citizens with an aim to improve the urban lived experience and to form and cultivate connections between people, place and community. Operating at the intersection of arts, placemaking and urban theory, and place attachment thinking, my research used a comparative approach based on participant observation and interviews at three case study sites: Art Tunnel Smithfield, Dublin, an outdoor art gallery and garden space; The Drawing Shed, Walthamstow, London, a social arts practice predominantly operating in housing estates in Walthamstow and Wandsworth; and Big Car, Indianapolis, an arts organisation operating across the whole of this Midwest USA city.

Big Car, Indianapolis (2014)

Big Car, Indianapolis (2014)


Ed Woodham, Danger Deep Water (2014), part of The Drawing Shed, IdeasFromElse[W]here (2014)

Ed Woodham, Danger Deep Water (2014), part of The Drawing Shed, IdeasFromElse[W]here (2014)

Findings were along three themes. Firstly, of the art practice and process of social practice placemaking, revealing the collaborative art experience. Secondly, of urban space and place and social practice placemaking as a means of reinterpreting both spatial and cultural activities of the city. Thirdly, of place attachment and social practice placemaking and its role in and citizenship conscientisation and the politics of placemaking activity in the urban public realm. A typology of placemaking was also presented, operational along strategic, tactical and opportunistic lines and categorised by degree of public participation.

Art Tunnel Smithfield, Dublin (2013)

Art Tunnel Smithfield, Dublin (2013)

The research has various implications for the sector. Firstly, for creative and urban professionals and communities, by revealing how social practice placemaking can deepen an understanding of the relative agencies of the various modes of arts in place. Secondly, how this practice may advance placemaking practice as a whole by its use to better understand differences and similarities between placemakings within the placemaking sector, and from this, better communicate its practices to constituent stakeholders in the creative, urban design and community sectors. Thirdly, how this practice can inform the understanding of collective progressive citizenship in the urban realm and inform generative planning practices.

This research was also informed by some 20 years of working in arts in the public realm and built environment education. Current projects include Modern Brighton and Hove, a map of the city’s significant architecture from the last 100 years, with workshops and walking trails; a placemaking project to improve one of central Brighton’s sites of urban blight; and a public art consultation with former pit villages in Nottinghamshire.

I am also working with University of Virginia, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and the Thriving Cities Project, on a three-phased project that is looking at the metrics of creative placemaking. The project starts September 2016 and is set to complete January 2017. The project is spurred from the rise of creative placemaking in practice and theory globally and across many public realm sectors. With this popularity though, questions over definitions and claims have also grown and there is a need to draw the various scholarly and popular definitions and assessments of creative placemaking into one place.

Placemaking Typology (Courage, 2014). Artwork: Richard Wolfstrome

Placemaking Typology (Courage, 2014). Artwork: Richard Wolfstrome

The first phase of the project is mapping the field. That is, what are the main uses and major theoretical camps of creative placemaking and how is it often deployed in practice and by whom? Second phase will identify gaps in the field—what creative placemaking as a whole often misses in relation to art and community development, its unchallenged assumptions, and known deficits. The third and final phase will offer a slate of 10-15 best metrics and their rationales for evaluating creative placemaking projects in particular and cultural vitality in general.

I am hoping findings of this research will answer those questions that emerged from my PhD and that have been constant through my practice career – what do we and how can we measure that which we do in placemaking? It’s key for me in this endeavour that I hear the voices of as many aspects of placemaking that I can – if you have something to say, please do get in touch.

Dr. Cara Courage AoU

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