- Space Toolbox
- For Artists
- For Developers
- For Municipalities
- How ArtistLink Can Help
- Artist Space Research and Guidebooks
- Cultural Planning
- Cultural Inventorying
- Making the Case for Culture
- Zoning for Artists
- Artist Definitions & Certification
- Example City Initiatives
- Design Guidelines
- Artist Space Movie
Urban Design of Cultural Districts
1.The urban design of artist districts is about process not design, because when planning for the arts you are basically planning for uncertainty.
2. An urban designer should always involve local artists in the process, and
3. Connectivity and legibility are key.
What is the role of urban design in creating arts districts?
That a city can do streetscape improvements, for example, says little about the complexity of trying as a city designer to conceive how urban design can complement cultural planning in an economic development strategy. Urban design is important to cultural planning because urban design is closely linked to the politics of place marketing and legitimizing entrepreneurial forms of government. Cultural districts could be the natural place to build upon unique architecture and design because of the creative nature of the population and the ability of that artist population to fashion and interpret local designs for the area. Because an arts district has the potential to involve local designers in the process of its creation, it follows that much of the role of an urban designer for a district should be about setting up a framework for connecting local creative workers to the right projects to make unique places. If this is correct, then the way in which an urban designer should manage the creation of a district is through process rather than design. Wansbourgh and Mageen see this as a type of “urban stewardship:”
“Helping a place to look after itself, a sort of management by incremental change, coupled with selective strategic interventions to effect wider progress and improvement…not to plan cultural or other activity, but to plan for cultural development and the ebb and flow of activity. In other words, planning for uncertainty.”
They see that integration across policy areas as being key: “The role of urban design in cultural regeneration involves both the integration of arts policy with more mundane services, such as public transport, crime prevention or street maintenance, as well as the integration of ‘hard’ infrastructure with a variety of ‘soft’ uses, events and activities.”
Involving arts policy in these “mundane services” can actually be quite an exciting prospect for an arts district planner. Adele Fleet Bacow, in both the Worcester Art District master plan and in her book Designing the City: A Guide for Advocates and Public Officials, makes clear that much can be gained by rethinking the public process of designing streetscape objects (signs, lamps, streetlights, sidewalks, etc.) and other parts of the urban realm. Bacow points out that any public project has a dynamic process that can change at any time.
By setting up new relationships between local artists, city engineers and public works designers, a community based design can be put into motion that might just carry with it an impact that is lasting. She imagines that a politician will be more willing to carry forward something that has included community input and reflects a uniqueness to the city, than a design that does not. To accomplish these types of design will take some serious thinking outside of the box. Municipal Public Works officials are not used to working with artists and vice-versa. A unique opportunity for arts districts exists to create a better understanding in city departments of the creative process that will benefit all.
Connectivity, both in how strong the connection of the arts district is to the surrounding community and how strong connections within the district are, appears to be key to the survival and success of a district. A beautiful consistency of urban form exists in both the building walls and streetscape that makes a pedestrian feel welcome on the street. Few holes break up good districts, so that when walking you really do feel that you are experiencing a set of blocks that work together. Streetsigns make you aware when you are moving in and out of the district, and it is easy to access the rest of the city from the district. Good districts also design around a series of events connected by way-finding tools.
 Of course, there is a problem here: what if your local designers are bad artists?  Matthew Wansborough and Andrea Mageen, “The Role of Urban Design in Cultural Regeneration” Journal of Urban Design 5, no. 2 (2000): 181-197.  Adele Fleet Bacow, Designing the City: A Guide for Advocates and Public Officials (Island Press, 1995).  “Arts Districts: Economic/Community/Urban Form: Roundtable and Fellows Panel” Institute for Urban Design (October 2001).