Placemaking in 21st Century America Podcast #38

Sidewalk Painting
Sidewalk painting in Cincinnati, OH. Photo taken by Yard & Company

Ryan Salzman joins the Democracy Paradox to discuss how placemaking shapes communities. His recent book Pop-Up Civics in 21st Century America explains how associational relationships have changed over the last twenty years through the creation of temporary institutions and activities. Ryan follows in the footsteps of Robert Putnam and Alexis de Tocqueville to explain how informal associations tie communities together.

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Like so many things we’re coming to grips with now in the 21st century, we’re realizing that the 20th century was the anomaly. We feel like what was happening in the first 20 years of the 21st century that that was the anomaly. But it’s not. The 20th century was the anomaly. And there’s a temptation among policymakers to say, ‘But this is how it’s always been.’ No. Wrong.

Ryan Salzman

Placemaking Around Us

I live in Carmel, Indiana and in May The Farmers’ Market opens. It’s in a small public space between a concert hall called The Palladium and the Booth Tarkington Theatre. The Monon Bike Trail runs alongside it and there is bike parking sponsored by the Mayor’s Youth Council. Live bands play in the center of the market. In the winter, the same space is used for an n outdoor ice skating rink surrounded by a German Christkindlmarkt. This is what Ryan Salzman describes as placemaking. 

Placemaking does not just transform public spaces. It expands them. Placemaking changes how we experience our community and establishes new landmarks. And whether we want to admit it or not, this is political. Placemaking involves the creation and distribution of public goods. 

Local governments make decisions over whether to embrace or prevent placemaking. For example, teenagers can paint a beautiful mural on a public building. Elected officials will decide whether to send a thank you or a citation. 

Ryan Salzman and Placemaking

Ryan Salzman has studied the phenomenon of placemaking in his home of Bellevue, Kentucky and in other communities across the United States. He is a professor of political science at Northern Kentucky University and the author of Pop-Up Civics in 21st Century America: Understanding the Political Potential of Placemaking. He has experienced placemaking as an academic, an elected city councilman, and an active participant. 

Ryan’s work caught my attention because it examines local engagement through a novel lens. It considers political behavior that the participants probably don’t realize is political. It moves beyond theories of deliberative and direct democracy to consider ways everyday citizens produce meaningful action. Ryan and I have a light hearted conversation. But I don’t want to overlook the significant implications of placemaking for political science and political theory. I am excited for Ryan to share his stories and ideas. So it’s about time I introduce you to Ryan Salzman…


Ryan Salzman, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.


Great to be here. Thanks for having me.


Ryan, as I read your book, I actually found it difficult to draw a line between Ryan, the city councilmen and Ryan, the academic. The two aspects feel as though they’re intertwined. Can you explain to me how your practical experience in politics has shaped your research?


It’s really hard to ignore the things that are happening around you. And for me, moving to a new community in 2012, my wife and I, and then eventually my family that came along after that, we really immersed ourselves in the community. And it was coming out of grad school having done the classic dissertation work, I had this highly aware, maybe over-sensitive, might even be a better word, so everything that I was experiencing for the first time, I had to run it through this filter, this grad school filter. And was thinking a lot about what I could learn, because I’m a trained comparativist and so trying to understand Kentucky versus Ohio, it was almost obsessive in trying to connect these dots.

And placemaking was totally new to me. And I’m sure it was happening in the community that I moved from. And I’ve come to realize now it absolutely was happening. But to me in that moment, it was interesting and it was inspirational. And because it was new and interesting and inspirational, I desperately wanted to bring it into the classroom.  And of course, I was teaching Intro to American Politics and the things that you would expect. And I said, ‘Hey students, you got to see this. I mean, this is really cool, what’s happening.’ And as a result, I really convinced myself that this was a real thing.

But at that point, by the time I started to appreciate the scholarly potential of these behaviors called placemaking, I was too late. I was all in. I was doing it. I was living it. It was what my weekends were. I had friends who were doing it professionally. And so, absolutely, this research project was something that was born out of my personal experiences and my desire to make those political science connections to what it was that I was experiencing, because I came to realize that those connections weren’t there, even though I saw that tremendous potential there.

So I hate the idea that it’s about me, but certainly a lot of the pictures that are in the book, in the chapter introductions, they’re from things that I was experiencing and seeing and then some that were being done by some neighbors and colleagues and collaborators of mine who do this stuff professionally as well. But it absolutely is about what’s happening in my life and in my community. Although, I certainly don’t want it to just be about Bellevue, Kentucky, or myself, even if that does come through to an extent.


There’s nothing wrong about putting your personality into the book. I was talking to Yael Tamir about Isaiah Berlin, who was actually her mentor in graduate school, Isaiah Berlin, the great political philosopher. And I was mentioning how it feels like when Isaiah Berlin is writing about somebody else, he’s really just writing about him. And she replied to me, ‘Isaiah just wrote about himself all the time.’ So, there’s nothing wrong about it. Some of the most amazing writers. Do the same thing and some of the greatest insights come from our own personal reflections.


Well, I don’t consider myself to be a great writer. And it was going to require some kind of motivation for me personally to get there, because I realized pretty early on in this project that it was going to have a hard time finding an audience in traditional peer reviewed publications, because it was pretty new as a concept. And so, doing something that I was living, however, made it enjoyable. And, I felt like in order to bring the passion to the table, it was going to have to be something that I really believed in.


But of course, the idea of placemaking, that concept that you’re writing about, is to a large degree about civic society, which there’s a long tradition about civil society, civic society, dating back to Tocqueville, including Robert Putnam, Seymour Martin Lipset, Francis Fukuyama. We’re talking about huge names, who spent a lot of their careers writing about civil society, civic society, concepts that are really key to your work. Why don’t we go ahead and start with the idea of placemaking? What is placemaking, and who does it engage?


Well, in some ways placemaking is certainly self-descriptive. It is the ability to make a place. And the question becomes, well, then what are we making the place out of? We’re making it out of space? So, space would be an unactivated, built environment of some kind, whether it’s truly undeveloped space or it’s even a developed spacethat’s underutilized. And so placemaking is rooted in this idea that place can be created by people for lots of different reasons, but it’s for the utilization of people. So placemaking is the ability to take a space and turn it into something more, to turn it into a place.


Do you feel like it brings new citizens into the political process or even into the sense of building the community?


I have witnessed people engage in what I call placemaking events and they could be activities or singular behaviors. And as a result, become truly committed to their communities and desirous of policy change that if it was in them, it was something that was not activated. And that placemaking was that thing to kind of push it over. So, it’s an invitation. So much about placemaking is about inclusion and about inviting people into the public, creating something that is inclusive. It’s inspirational. It’s innovative. And in so being, it’s irresistible to most of us. We want this.

And especially when we think about well into the 21st century, there’s this fear of missing out. And that idea of being worried about missing out on something has really helped fuel the rise of placemaking. But to be clear, most placemaking is not initiated for political purposes. I think it could be done more for political purposes and some of the results become political, but nonetheless, that’s probably not their impetus. But that’s also how people end up being attracted and invited and feeling enabled to participate, because it’s not something that is overtly political in its intent even if it does have these political outcomes. Now again, it can be political in its intent. But, most of it, as we sit right now is not undertaken for that reason.


Yeah. But I think it depends on how you define political.


Absolutely. So, if we’re thinking of the Aristotelian political animals, you know, we are where we are then. Absolutely. It’s political.


I live in Carmel, Indiana. And we have bike Carmel events on a regular basis, up and down the Monon Trail. And they essentially do pop-up bike rides that extend throughout the community. Those are political in nature.  They set aside community resources for the bike ride. They bring people together to talk to each other.  They’re not perceived as political, but the idea of getting people together to participate in a collective function is, in and of itself, political. I mean, that’s why Putnam was a political scientist rather than a sociologist.


Absolutely. It’s certainly associational behavior, first and foremost, especially in the context of Putnam. We are bringing people together who otherwise would not be together. We are bringing people into associations around things that interest them and creating some space for some cross-cutting cleavages. The tie that binds in caramel is bike interest, but Republicans like to bike, Democrats like to bike, people of different ethnicities like to bike. Races, generations, genders, the bicycling is what brings people together. And then as a result of that you create an association. And this is what Putnam was so high on with things like unions and church groups and Kiwanis and Rotary. And all of those things bring you together for an express purpose and then it accepts you, regardless of these others, things that we often delineate ourselves around and that associational behavior is huge when it comes to bicycling.

Bicycling is a significant question when it comes to infrastructure, transportation policy. I bet that a lot of those bike rides might’ve led to changes in transportation policy. If they get increasingly popular, ‘Well, let’s put more money behind it. Let’s expand it.’ That is a direct. Impact on public policy. And one that I would argue, if bicycling is your most important policy issue in your life, which I know a lot of people who are bicyclists it is certainly the thing that they think about the most, that is a lot more effective way to get what you want in terms of public policy than to go volunteer on somebody’s campaign, who supposedly is going to advocate for more bicycle spending somewhere down the road.

And as an elected official myself albeit in a much smaller community. I saw this time and time again in my own life where I would be elected for some very specific, some very focused policy preference and then you end up being distracted by everything else.   So, if your goal is a specific narrow set of policies, then placemaking could be an opportunity to get that done. And I think, bicycling infrastructure, multimodal transportation. There probably is no better example of the political potential of place-making than multimodal transportation.


Especially being able to draw on parents who are limited on time, but have tremendous needs within the community because of their children. A biking event can oftentimes expose where you don’t have the infrastructure in place for children to be able to bike within the community and encourage you to be able to build things like bike lanes. I know that when I bike, I could bike just about anywhere, but if I’m going to bring my nine-year-old. I need to make sure that it’s safe. So, I mean, it just makes a huge difference to being able to do that. And I know that for most parents, including myself, it’s difficult to have the time to set aside to truly lobby your elected officials. But if you’re doing it in something that involves your children, it makes it incredibly easy.


And to have the up-front legitimacy from the government, if they’re potentially sponsoring those or if it’s a community development corporation that’s taking the lead on that. It may not be in Carmel, but in other communities, the CDCs tend to be the ones leading these charges. And so that’s the front-end side. And then the backside is culture shaping. The more people out bicycling, the more advertising of bicycle friendly events or bicycle centered events. It tells people in the community who may be ignorant of those things or even antagonistic towards those things that they are valued.

And so, these were the kinds of things that I was coming to appreciate when I moved to my new community and this very circular reality. And when we think about policy-making, it’s a flowchart, right? And at some point you interject veto players, whether they’re elected or not, the identification of policy makers. I mean all the things that I teach in my intro to American politics class or comparative politics classes were happening, but they were happening by doing. And that’s what I found personally inspirational. And the example that you give about going out with your nine-year-old fits right into that. It’s very exciting to be able to do these things.

So, we have some great pictures. We painted polka dots in the alley next to my house as a way to really just make alleys more fun. I mean, it was really that simple, but to look back over the pictures and that my, at the time four-year-old, five-year-old was holding the paint brush. Or I make little free libraries. It’s kind of the same thing. And to think about the experience of doing it with them, two things happen. One, it inspires me to do more. And second, my hope is that it inspires my child to become active. My early memories about politics were putting out political yard signs on election day to some extent.

But also, my parents were very active in the nuclear non-proliferation movement in the early eighties. And it was having bicyclists in Central Texas come and stay in our house overnight. I mean, I have this etched into my memory and it made me want to do more. And I think these are some of the lamentations of Putnam is that we’re on this linear decline which by the time the book came out, Bowling Alone, in 2000, it appeared that that decline was as linear as he said it was. I mean, even in the four or five years between the article coming out and the book coming out, it had only gotten worse. And then with the advent of social media, and the like internet maybe more broadly, those lamentations appear to be coming true.

But again, what I was witnessing was behaviors, events that were pulling me away. They were pulling me away from my phone. They were pulling me away from partisan politics. They were putting me in groups with people and it was truly like an ‘aha’ moment. And I don’t want to act like what it is that I’ve been researching is going to replace any of those traditional behaviors.   You still have to have Kiwanis. You still should have unions and organized labor and church groups. They’re still important. This is just another and a relatively novel form of associational behavior.

And maybe that can plug the dam, right? If we’re losing the water that that is the reservoir of democracy then maybe like a cartoon, all you need is the chewed-up piece of gum to stop the leak. But it could also be a fresh dam, could be a new building material as well. It’s like the evolution from canvas to Kevlar. There’s something to it there.


So to give some clarity to how place-making is different from more traditional institutions and more traditional associations. It’s difficult, because I felt to some extent like placemaking kind of fell into the category of, ‘I know it when I see it.’ it’s temporary, but it’s not necessarily temporary. Because it could be a little library that sticks around. It’s decentralized, but it doesn’t have to completely be decentralized because the city can spearhead some of these activities. What is the single characteristic that you recognize when you see place-making activity that separates or distinguishes it from more traditional associations?


I think often about that term pop-up. So, something that’s pop-up can last for a period of time. You think about like a pop-up market. It’s not so temporary that it comes and goes in a flash of light, but nonetheless, it’s not intended to be permanent. And when we think about Rotary and we think about Kiwanis or unions, when they’re created, it’s never imagined that they would go away, but for a lot of placemaking and really even some of the most effective placemaking it’s deliberately temporary. Even some of the institutions around placemaking and things like ArtPlace America was created with something like a hundred million dollars, but a 10 year timeline. I mean, you don’t see institutions get created like that with a wind down date.

I talk in my book about an organization called People’s Liberty which was an offshoot of the Haile US Bank Foundation. And it was given a five-year window to do work. But as a result, you’re not thinking as much about fundraising for the future and spending just your endowment. Instead, you’re like, ‘If I got a dollar, let’s spend a dollar. If we’re going to raise a second dollar, let’s spend both dollars.’ And it can be really, really powerful. And so I think probably one of the biggest differences here between those traditional associations and something like a place-making event is at least the acceptance, if not the intentionality around it being relatively short-lived.


Now Tocqueville talks about people getting involved in communities all the way back during the age of Jackson. Although, I think it was technically the age of Martin van Buren, but anyway, he’s talking in the 1830s about people creating associations, being able to get things done together. And I don’t get the sense that these were always formal organizations that people were working through in the 19th century. I don’t get the impression that in the early part of American history that we necessarily leaned on these formal institutions. Is placemaking really just getting us back to a prior way of association or is this something truly new?


No, it’s definitely a Renaissance, if you will. A Renaissance may not even be the right way to think about it because it’s not just that that existed to the time of Tocqueville and probably up until the late 19th century, but it existed from a millennia prior to that. I mean, where you have a town, where you have a community, where you have civilization, you have placemaking.

Somewhere in the late 19th century. And certainly, by the early 20th century, institutionalizing things became really sexy. This became the way that everything functioned. And in some ways, it was probably following the governmental institutions that had been so wildly successful. You know, something as messy as democracy, creating rules of the game where people play in it and it gets good. Even games, you know, things like football and baseball and all these things became very rule focused, very team focused and I think that associations kind of naturally followed that evolution themselves. And then we start to see the decline and we say, ‘Oh my goodness, look at this decline in formalization of institution.’ Now we don’t say decline in the formalization of institutions. We just say the decline of associations or of institutions, but what I think probably what we’re seeing is a reversion to the way it had been for millennia. And what’s been captured in a lot of kind of periodical op-eds, sort of commentaries these days, is around a return to localism. Localism is how politics was always done.

And until this wave of institutionalization, that was the 20th century, then subsequently followed by mass communication technology and radio television and then the internet. Up until that point that’s all you had was local. And when you are local, those bonds, those things that are so important to Tocqueville first and then Putnam, they exist somewhat naturally because you are inhabiting and becoming active in a way that is singular for that community and within that community. Well, now what we are seeing is some of this decentralization, some of this informalization. But it’s not that Rotary is becoming informal it’s that Rotary chapters are going away. But then there’s this rise of this more informal set of behavior.

So, I absolutely think that you’re right, but like so many things we’re coming to grips with now in the 21st century, we’re realizing that the 20th century was the anomaly. We feel like what was happening in the first 20 years of the 21st century that that was the anomaly, but it’s not. The 20th century was the anomaly. And there’s a temptation among policymakers to say, ‘But this is how it’s always been.’ No. Wrong. Cars haven’t existed for that long. So no, that’s not true. For millennia, for 5,000 years, human civilization has existed and only for the last hundred, has the car been central to that existence. So, trying to create a system that values multimodal transportation is actually a return to normalcy.

And so, I would like to think that things like placemaking both in their outcomes and their intention are a return to normalcy. Stop thinking about Washington, DC. Start thinking about your city council. Stop worrying about what the NRA is doing and start worrying about violence in your own community. And that’s also why I was so intrigued by this because another buzz word that we have is sustainability. For me placemaking is very sustainable it doesn’t demand a lot. Temporariness is acceptable and it’s interesting. It’s exciting. It’s fun. It’s inclusive. All of these things point to sustainability versus something where everything has to do with the institution. But by and large people engaged in placemaking are about the here and now and then the results are longer lasting is just a really kind of beneficial by-product of what is happening in kind of a natural way.


It’s so interesting to hear you talk about getting back to traditions or moving backwards in time, because I see so much of your work, your past work, and even this book, as talking about being very forward-looking, especially in terms of technology and social media, and you put placemaking within the context of social media in your book. You write, “Placemaking is ideal for social media. And that causes the greatest benefits of social media to accrue to individuals involved in placemaking.” But placemaking does also nudge us away from our screens. So, I really wanted to ask you this early on. Ryan, is placemaking really an extension of social media or is it a diversion from it?


Oh, that’s a great question. I would like to think it’s a diversion from it, but we certainly are using social media as the invitation, as the enticement. ‘Come participate in this event and you’re going to get the best Instagram photos that you’ve ever had.’ You know, people come, they snap their picks, but then they stay for three hours. And so, I don’t know if it’s as separable as your question kind of implies. But I certainly think that if we’re going to think about the full potential of placemaking in a political context, we have to appreciate that without social media, that potential will never be realized in large part because of the temporariness of those behaviors.


There’s actually a better line that I just want to work in because I thought it was really good. You said, Today, it is not unusual for an individual to essentially have two existences, one real and one virtual. And for some people, the virtual reality is dominant.”


So this is one of the really interesting things. When I started to try to kind of gut check, ‘Is this really an associational behavior?’ When I think about the fact that when I build a little library, it’s really just me and maybe one or two other people. I mean, is that really associational? You know, the polka dots in our alley. We had about 10 people involved, but 10 people is not like an entire Rotary Chapter or whatever. And what I decided is because people do live, some people, not all, but some people do live the majority of their live on social media, in this virtual world. By utilizing social media through the process of placemaking, people who were engaged solely online develop a sense of ownership.

And some of those things that we think about in terms of trust and again, the cross-cutting cleavages, they transfer to that individual, even though they never picked up a paintbrush. I think the Black Lives Matter street murals are a good example of this. I was back home quarantining with my family in Texas over the summer. When the Black Lives Matter mural was painted in Cincinnati, and it was painted on the street in front of the city building. And I followed along the whole way. I mean, it’s a great event. I mean, there’s probably very few better examples in 2020 of placemaking and its political potential than these murals. I mean, this is placemaking and the whole intent was to draw policymakers’ attention and to get them to enact policies, right?

I mean, the connection was very, very clear, but the ownership, the pride, that I felt, even though I was not even, I wasn’t even in greater Cincinnati at the time. And yet I felt this tremendous pride around the community and what was going on. And then when there was some defacing of that mural. I was angry. That’s a kind of guttural reaction that owners of an initiative feel, not passive bystanders. In fact, the world we live in, we tend to be kind of cynical, ‘A-ha! They had it coming to them, those kids in there, you know, and they’re good works. They had it coming.’ You know, the cynicism takes over.

But if I had just been following this in the newspaper, or on the news, I don’t think I would have felt this commitment and this semi ownership over what was going on. But the fact that I was checking my feeds when I was back home, we were all, stuck inside of our houses. And I was able to see, you know, the B get painted, the L get painted, the A get painted, learn about the artists that were doing that painting. Realizing some of those artists, I actually have connections with, or some of my friends or neighbors or professional colleagues have connections with them. That ownership, that connection grew and grew and grew.

And again, when that defacement happened, I was literally angry. And I remember sitting up, I was in the very final edits of the book at that time. And I’m pretty sure I ran to my computer and opened it back up. And I was like, ‘This is exactly what I’m talking about.’ I needed that sort of shot in the arm right there at the end of the book project to know that. And this is another thing that’s really interesting. There’s an epilogue in the book that’s about placemaking during a pandemic. So, when the pandemic began, I was very concerned that this was going to be the death knell for placemaking. It was going to be a giant hole punch through this idea when we need engagement the most is when it was going to completely go away.

And yet, placemaking was thriving during the pandemic. And knowing that it was my social media, it was this phone that gave me those feelings that Putnam was describing was just again, it was this serendipitous moment. And that’s what’s been so cool about this entire project is it is serendipitous moment after serendipitous moment. You know when you think you’ve got it figured out and then another angle comes and I’ve said repeatedly in trying to sort of be the icebreaker, for this idea for whether it’s just completely new, novel ideas of association and democracy, or it’s placemaking specifically.

But the reality is it’s time to go down that path. And I’ll be honest with you, my reaction that I’ve received in the political science community is discouraging because it rings as people that are interested in 20th century problems and 20th century solutions to 20th century problems. I’m interested in 21st century problems. And I’m certainly interested in 21st century solutions to 21st century problems. And I hope that this book and this research project, even if you wildly disagree with what it is that I’m coming to there’s can be an appreciation that it’s time for political science to start thinking about the future.

I can’t talk about elections anymore. You know, I can’t see the look on my students’ faces every time partisan politics comes up. It’s absolutely defeating. And yet all of these really robust, interesting, enriching things are happening around us. And when we think about what democracy means, I think that we’re missing the point if we’re trying to understand democracy. So, I’m looking forward to the next serendipitous moment that will come with placemaking. And maybe again, it’ll be holding a cold drink in a dilapidated alley somewhere. Who knows. Who knows.


Well Ryan, I’ll be honest. I saw this very much within the tradition of political science, that tradition of Seymour Martin Lipset where he walks that line between sociology and political science. Some of the most groundbreaking comparative political science right now is done by, political scientists who often question whether they’re more sociologists or political scientists, because they’re looking at the societies and the communities, rather than just elections. So, I’ll be honest. I didn’t see this out of left field at all.


Well, I appreciate that.


No, that’s fine. But I want to come back to this concept. So you described how in Cincinnati, they had some people who drew a Black Lives Matter mural. And that’s something that I can definitely get behind and can definitely support. But part of the concept of placemaking decentralizes decision-making when it comes to community resources. A person says, ‘Hey, I want to make a mural.’ They go out there. They make a mural with maybe tacit support from elected officials. But there can also be a dark side I would imagine to, the same sense of decentralization. And you hinted at it with the idea of somebody harming the mural, defacing the mural. There there’s been people who’ve put up signs before saying, ‘No blacks allowed in this community.’

In a sense, that’s somebody putting up a homemade sign. That is placemaking, but it’s not the kind of placemaking that we want. How do we encourage the right type of place-making and discourage the wrong type when we’re essentially decentralizing the decision-making process to a large degree?


Yeah, fortunately, I haven’t seen too many examples or I should say the positive outnumber the negative substantially. I don’t think we could say the same thing for any other kind of political participation right now. That the positive outnumbers the negative to the degree to which placemaking does. Placemaking take a lot of effort. I mean, it takes a lot of effort. There’s certainly a commitment in your resources and your time at least for the placemakers it’s a lot of work. And my observation has been that haters, like to tear things down. They don’t ever seem to build things up and placemaking is inherently about building things up.

So, it’s going to be very difficult to find a little library that is built for the specific purpose of disseminating white supremacist literature. It absolutely could happen, but again, that’s a lot of work when you could just go online and spout your hate and get your likes and your retweets. Most people that will go so far as to buy wood and paint it and build it and install it are going to be doing so with children in mind, with those sorts of things in mind. You can have a religious connotation. I don’t think that’s negative. Some people might not like sharing religious ideas, but church congregations was something that was certainly important to Putnam and, and what he was describing.

So, I don’t see as much of that. It does set up a target, however for haters to come. But in some ways that actually ends up doing more to advance that policy preference. We’ve had in my community, I love to build little libraries and certainly, there have been some that have been defaced or have been damaged. But every time one is damaged, it’s really been amazing, the outpouring of support, not just from other people wanting to help, but also wanting to build more of them. And the city coming to the aid, not even that aid is really needed, but it just shows that the community takes tremendous pride from the government all the way down. And they do rally to that.

The same was true for the defacement of the Black Lives Matter mural, you know. Again, most of the hateful acts that we see, they’re striking out against people that are being positive. And I think if we were to think just strictly about the Black Lives Matter movement and the civil rights, to me placemaking is a very natural evolution. It’s a very natural ad-on to the traditional protest. And in fact, we haven’t talked about it yet, but one of the kind of main theoretical connections that I make in my book, so that we can understand this as politics, is thinking about protests, and that another word for a protest is a demonstration.

And that placemaking is a demonstration. You’re demonstrating policies that are important to you. I find it to be very important, you know, for children to read, for literacy. So, a little free library is a physical manifestation of that. I am demonstrating that priority. We are demonstrating pedestrian safety or we are demonstrating the value of bicycling when we go out, and maybe not what you have in Carmel, but pop-up bike lanes. Pop-up bike lanes demonstrate that bicycle infrastructure is important. Murals, public art, and often these things are even dueling in their value. If we think about a crosswalk that’s painted with rainbow colors. There are two messages that are being sent there. One is that pedestrianism should be valued. And another is that LGBTQ plus is also something that that should be valued as well.

So, you can go out with a hundred of your friends and march down the street with your fist in the air and have a demonstration or you can paint a rainbow flag in a crosswalk and demonstrate as well. And so again, most people who are being very negative that are haters, they’re not into putting forth that effort. They’ll march down the street. But they’ll stop short of being constructive because in some ways it’s almost antithetical to what it is that they’re advocating for. When your words say, ‘Tear it down.’ You can’t then subsequently build something.


The Black Lives Matter mural is an interesting example of how community involvement so often involves art. Your example of little libraries is a great example of how community involvement can involve crafts and in getting involved in different ways, utilizing ways of thinking and being that we don’t normally associate with politics or even collective action. Last week, I discussed democracy with an art historian, Kajri Jain. She described ways that democracy relates back to the aesthetic. So, your sense of placemaking, I see it as also tied to the aesthetic. So, can you discuss how art has the power to shape our community? And, maybe even how it shapes our democracy.


So many intersections there for me personally. I was raised by artists. I should have mentioned that my dad’s a stained-glass artist. And so I spent a lot of time in church sanctuaries helping to install windows or standing in bathtubs of houses being built putting in windows and I was raised around art galleries and art openings and different artists and learned very early on that I’m not an artist. But it’s nonetheless that I love it. And I think that when I think about democracy, the Demos is first and foremost, right? I’m not worried about the rule as much as I’m worried about the people.

And I’ve studied culture in grad school. And I still think I study culture with placemaking. How we express ourselves as humans is always going to come back. It may be circuitous, but it’s always going to come back to the aesthetic whether it’s theater or murals or even just being creative and you’ll find a lot of research actually around what’s called creative placemaking. And that falls under the umbrella of placemaking and it’s a little bit different because the emphasis is on the aesthetic. It’s on art and that has a formal role for professional artists by and large if you talk to people who study that. There’s an Institute at Arizona State that focuses on this. They’re really big on the role of professional artists and that they have to be involved.

But in my research, time and time again, people said placemaking is about the creativity of humans and finding that role. And so, I don’t know how you have society without art. Autocratic, democratic, all the rest of it. Any epic, any generation, any era, the art is what we look to first and foremost. Maybe the 20th century will finally buck that trend and think more in terms of technology, but maybe not. Maybe in 2,500, we’re going to look back at the year 2000 and we’re going to be more interested in the art that we created.

And so this goes back to kind of the earlier points that I was making about the inherent appeal of it. And also, what I talked about later, which is the connection with social media and the further ability to draw people in because. of that aesthetic. It’s really exciting. I mean, there’s an organization, a community development corporation here in the Cincinnati area called Price Hill Will. They created a youth orchestra and they did this as a way to engage with the youth of the area. It’s a very low-income area in Cincinnati. And it was a woman who was in leadership of the CDC. She was a trained musician.. And so, she wanted to teach that and it has become a huge pride point for that entire community to the extent that the parents came and said they wanted to learn how to play these instruments too.

And so, I believe that they’ve created an adult orchestra as well as the youth orchestra. And to think that there’s one side of this which is aesthetic and art and creativity pulling out of you or pulling out of the community. You’re representing the community as it always has occurred, but then there’s this ability as well to take on something new and something novel. There’s no history of orchestras in this community. And yet this is something that they just came to and they decided that this was something that was valuable.


Now, you described many instances where local government either signs off or state governments get in the way of place-making activities. Can you describe to me how governments can either assist this behavior or create obstacles?


Almost all placemaking happens in public spaces and if it’s not public, then it’s public adjacent and you’re kind of using a public space for access to whatever placemaking is going on. Anytime it’s a public space, you fall under public regulations. You fall under governmental regulations, egress ingress, zoning regulations. How many people are allowed? Can you block a side walk? Noise violations. Alcohol service if this is something that would involve alcohol. These all become things that can become problematic.

I know in the city of Cincinnati, for instance, and I do believe this policy has changed, but it’s a fairly recent change that if you wanted to hold a parade in the city of Cincinnati, or you wanted to have a public event in the city of Cincinnati, you had to pay the overtime for a police officer on every corner. That is prohibitive. That is an example of a regulation that a city could wave. Well, they could certainly undo it. They could wave it in the moment. Or they could enforce it to the point that it now becomes prohibitive. So that would be an example of that, but a lot of stuff that happens on sidewalks and these are reasonably created regulations. I don’t want to act like they’re not, but because of the need to have adequate passage that can’t happen.

I’ve seen instances where what they’ll do is they’ll issue permits to close the sidewalk even though the sidewalk is still open, because you issue the permit, it’s kind of like, okay, we’re good. And then I’ve seen other instances where they say, ‘Nope, you can’t close the sidewalk. You can’t, you know, you can’t use it.’ So, ‘Oh, well I guess you just have to go find another project.’ And then as the placemaker, you know, what often happens is you kind of turn inside yourself and then it just never ends up happening.  ‘

Oh, I want to paint a mural.’

‘Oh, a mural is actually analogous to a sign.’

‘Okay, cool. Well, that’s no problem for me.’

‘Yeah. Well, it’s a problem for us because this is an offsite sign.’

And you’re like, ‘It’s not a sign. It’s a mural.’

‘Yeah. But it is a sign. So, it’s not allowed.’

We had that happen in my community when I tried to build little libraries for the first time. We had one that was built and it just blew my mind. It was done by a girl scout out in front of a church, very near my house. And I just, I had never heard of it. And this just blew my mind and I thought we need to have so many of these all-around town. Promote it online that we were going to make these. Again, promote it as a way to kind of create some positive mojo around it even though I knew not too many people would participate. I got a letter in the mail from the city saying that if we put up little libraries that we would be cited.

So I went and met with the city. And, and, for those of you who aren’t familiar with Bellevue, Kentucky, it’s a square mile. The city is a square mile and, we have 6,000 people, so we’re quite dense, but it is just a square mile. And so I had to go up, talk to city council, talk to our zoning administrator and it was one of the craziest conversations I feel like I’ve had with a bureaucrat. Conversations with bureaucrats usually aren’t that exciting, but they said, ‘Well, we outlawed penny saver, thrifty nickel kind of free magazine, free newspaper distribution because they were, this was back in the nineties, and they were creating a lot of litter around town, and we’ve decided that your little library, we’re going to reason by analogy. And the closest thing we can come up with is it’s like these free newspaper dispensers. So therefore, you can’t have it.’

‘Well, let’s create a policy to enable these then.’

‘Well, we were not certain that we want to do that.’

‘Well, why not?’

‘Well, we’re worried that it’s going to take away from the public library, that people are going to go to hear a little free library and they won’t go to the public library and then what’ll happen.’

And I said, ‘Well, then what will happen? What’s the problem? People don’t pay to go to the library.’

‘Well, but they could proliferate.’

Can you give me an example of something that came to the city of Bellevue and then  proliferated?’

‘Liquor stores.’

I kid you not Justin. That’s what they told me. They said liquor stores was what I needed to worry about. So, I say this story. Now we ended up legitimizing it, we created a program. You have to go through this, this, that, and the other. We addressed a lot of their concerns and created it. But the point there being that they were pulling out every tool in their tool belt to try to prevent little libraries, little free libraries from coming in. Somewhat ironically the public library system has actually become the biggest supporter of, and it’s talked about some in the book, that they actually saw little libraries as a natural extension of libraries.

And guess what, people who work for libraries, their top priority is getting books to people. Yeah, it’s just, it’s just shocking, right? Like who would have thought that that was the case, but that is what they wanted. And of course, they saw little libraries as being a very natural extension. They created a program where if you have a little free library, you can come into the library and they will actually give you books for free to put in your little library. So a lot of good has really come out of it. And the local library even did an initiative that ended up building about 40 little free libraries to be distributed around Campbell County, including attending city council meetings in Campbell County, Kentucky to make sure that little libraries were enabled.

So again, the political potential of this place-making activity became manifest by the director of the local library going to councils and advocating for the creation of a policy to enable these things. But it’s definitely been a learning experience about the power of not just the laws, but, and I hit on this a couple times in the book repeatedly. People said that a bureaucrat said, ‘The laws don’t matter if the leader wants it. We’ll make it happen.’ And that told me a lot. I mean, I’m all about the rule of law. Don’t get me wrong, but somebody has to execute those laws. And that now we’re getting down to people’s personal preferences and we could go all the way back to saying rule by the people.

If you create a culture that loves little libraries, you’ll be amazed that the leaders suspend the laws that matter so that you can create little libraries much less even create new laws to enable these things. And so, again, this was all happening in the 2012 to 2015, 16. But I’m really excited to see what’s next for placemaking. Is it more of a reversion to these classical behaviors? Is it an amplification of the things that are currently going on? Is it something totally new? I have no idea, but I’m going to be really excited to follow along


Well, Ryan, thanks so much for joining me today. It’s really great learning about different ways of thinking about politics, different ways of thinking about the way that people work to be able to build their communities. Because obviously, that’s the foundation of democracy itself. So thanks for sharing these ideas with us. Thanks for writing your book.


Yeah, thanks for having me and thanks for having these conversations. I really love the work that you do, and that’s such an important part of moving our field and, our understanding of these concepts moving forward. So, thank you.

Key Links

Pop-Up Civics in 21st Century America: Understanding the Political Potential of Placemaking

Black Lives Matter Mural in Cincinnati, Ohio

ArtPlace America

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