The art of sustainable culture: Building community through creative place-making

Aesthetic capital: What happens when we create places that inspire people? "Self-expression and participation, care and investment," says Kitty Love, executive director for the Asheville Area Arts Council. Photo by Jordan Foltz

Often when we talk about sustainability, we focus on clean energy, the local economy or conservation. These are clearly integral to a resilient future — but the cultural fabric and the qualitative aspects that comprise this future are just as vital for creating a foundation for a sustainable community. Sometimes called “creative placemaking,” this process starts with the premise that the drivers and inspiration of a community are inextricable from its systems and economy — linking artists and poets to scientists and economists in realizing a sustainable future.

The importance of attachment

Robin Cape, who served on the Asheville City Council from 2005 to 2009 and founded Asheville Buncombe Sustainable Community Initiatives, works with the HUB Community Economic Development Alliance, a board of community leaders whose present agenda involves catalyzing a more resilient Asheville. For Cape, solutions start with strong relationships.

“The platform of engagement is going to be constantly changing, but what we need to always look at is: ‘Do we have a way to start building trust? Do we have a way to start connecting?’” Cape asks. “Right now, [the HUB] is following this idea brought on by the Knight Foundation — ‘What is the soul of the community? And how do we support that?’”

Cape refers to a recent study, conducted by the Knight Foundation and Gallup, that distinguishes the elements needed to build attachment between people and the places they live. The top three elements are tolerance, or the sense of being accepted for who you are; aesthetics, or being in a beautiful place that feeds the soul; and openness, or having a place to be with others, according to the study.

Essentially, what bonds people to the place they live is their ability to expressively interact with each other in open, beautiful spaces, Cape explains. The importance of attachment? Without it, there is no drive to nurture and care for places we are bonded to. That emotional tie is essential to creating caring and motivated stakeholders — despite differences, these stakeholders agree on what feeds their “souls” and can work together, she says.

An evolving asesthetic

So what do these “beautiful spaces” look like? Every culture has some aesthetic foundation that is vital to sustaining its wellness generation after generation. The sense of what is beautiful or attractive is a huge driver for how people apply them- selves and are fulfilled.

“The culture we have created? It’s brutalist,” says Cape, referring to the architectural style that flourished worldwide from the 1950s through the ’80s and reflects an ethos characterized by privatization and bland materialism — definitely not inspiring trust or participation. “We’ve created a brutalist response to our environment,” says Cape.

And that dominant aesthetic hasn’t worked out too well, says Kitty Love, HUB member and executive director of the Asheville Area Arts Council. “Our culture is evolving,” she says. “Instead of valuing personal profit over people, we are moving to a more egalitarian system where we value living [and] where you don’t accumulate too much because — what’s the point, really? It doesn’t make you happy, and it’s not sustainable.”

Love and Cape see the cultural aesthetic moving from one that inspires and venerates domination to one that inspires collaboration and participation. Though economic pillars of finance, food or housing will always exists, the ways that these pillars are expressed will grow from the foundation of how people seek to be happy and fulfilled. Through this lens, scientific/ technological change is only “progress” insofar as it expresses the advancement of how we see ourselves in relationship to each other and our environment.

“These guys who have fallen hook, line and sinker for this idea of the power of personal wealth really just want to play, you know? And they have no idea how to even do it,” Love says.

Her job is to steward that common play- ground, facilitating the growth of “aesthetic capital” that ultimately speaks to our sense of play — not our sense of domination — and inspires people into what she names the God Posture: “evoking self-expression and participation, care and investment.”

According to Love, we are moving out of a consumer culture that ignores psychological and emotional fulfillment, is driven by psycho-emotional deprivation and pushes us toward physical consumption. Without first addressing these root cultural issues, says Love, resilient, sustainable communities will not be possible.

With these elements in mind, she is working with the newly formed Buncombe Cultural Alliance to apply for funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. The money would be used to compile a “cultural assets inventory” for Buncombe County. Love says that this is an initial step in defining the scope of Asheville’s “soul,” so that benchmarks can be created for its growth.

Love notes that “arts and culture are the aftereffect of creativity,” and creative placemaking is integral to nurturing the collective aesthetic experience that generates creative interaction.

“Using arts programming to change the way public spaces are perceived and used … ultimately builds a sense of place and ownership for all involved,” she says.

Keeping it real

For Chris Joyell, executive director of the Asheville Design Center, that sense of ownership is achieved by making sure the members of a particular community have a say in designing their public spaces themselves. “You can’t fake it up,” he says, “When you think about how a city organically forms, … placemaking is derived from community.”

He explains that for all of its design solutions, the ADC first spends ample time with the communities that will house and experience the spaces to find out what the present problems are, as well as the desired solutions. “If we’ve done our job right, then it’s as if the community had gone to school, studied design and came up with it on their own.”

When local mural artist and ADC volunteer Molly Must spearheaded the Triangle Park mural in 2012, she had a year to complete the project.

“She spent nine months meeting with people in their living rooms, and out in the park, gathering information, stories, audio — and I was beginning to get nervous because we had 270 linear feet to cover,” says Joyell. But then, with the help of The Block’s neighborhood nonprofit Just Folks, the mural was painted “almost overnight” he says. The mural depicts real scenes, stories and people from the neighborhood — it represents, in art, the community itself.

“Making a place beautiful can definitely aid in building community relationships, but only if it’s the community itself that’s making the decisions and changes,” says Must. “Many communities have been inadvertently displaced by well-intentioned policy-makers and city planners who equate aesthetic ‘placemaking’ with community improvement.”

“Triangle Park is that last remnant of The Block that’s left,” Joyell adds, “The community held onto it and it’s going to help dictate what we see happen as development comes back in.”

The ADC has contributed designs for projects that run the gamut in terms of scale: “Everything from [Interstate] 26 to a bus shelter for New Belgium [Brewing Co.],” he says. But no matter what the scale, Joyell emphasizes, “It’s detail that really captures people’s imaginations, … and it’s the attention to detail that really makes a difference. [And] in doing that with all the input, you can create a real place — a destination where people want to stop, absorb, talk, interact. And the more places we create like that the better our community becomes.”

Cape, Love, and Joyell all see “places” existing through the detail and character they express. Places don’t hurry you along. They don’t say, “Nothing to see here.” Rather they say “Isn’t this beautiful?” And they inspire citizens to engage, interact and care — vital elements to what Cape terms “an infrastructure of resilience.”

“It’s not about painting a wall,” Love adds. “It’s about having an innovative relationship with your community and creating more than you consume.”

The Arts Council offers fiscal sponsorship to those with specific projects that will add to our common aesthetic capital and partners with Asheville Art in the Park in offering an annual place-making grant, she explains.

“We’re all here because we have something that bonds us to this place,” says Love, “And that seed of similarity between the disparate kinds of people here … means, on some level, that we all want to play together.”


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About Jordan Foltz
Exploring the subtle and esoteric aspects of what drives and inspires people to take action— including religion, spirituality, ethics, and aesthetics.

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