Tuesday, March 13, 2012

“What do you mean by 'culture'?” by Julie Burros

I’ve talked to a lot of people about "cultural planning" lately. In the process, I’ve found that folks aren't so clear on what cultural planning even is or about what a cultural plan actually contains. Some people even ask me, “What do you mean by 'culture'?” 
As one of the few practicing cultural planners in Chicago, I’ve done a lot of explaining. No, I don’t plan events or festivals; I am an urban planner who helps the arts and culture to grow and thrive in our city. Few urban planners focus their work exclusively on the support of the cultural field. As a cultural planner, I get to help arts organizations with space issues, finding and leveraging resources for cultural facility development, updating city regulations to be more arts friendly.  I advocate for culture within city government, find ways to include culture in the city’s other plans, and cultivate the growth of districts. Most people quickly understand that in a city that values the presence of arts and culture, it’s useful to have people within city government that the arts sector can go to for help.
Sometimes I find that the biggest skeptics can be planners themselves. I’ve made the case again and again about the value of the arts in community development. I am the first to admit that the arts are not the answer for every urban problem. But it is very true that arts and culture can often do what no other type of urban development can: bring people together across great divides of class, income, background and geography, and quickly transform a space and the perception of an area for the better, and bring joy to people’s lives.  A local example is the Dale Chihuly exhibit at the Garfield Park Conservatory a few years ago. The exhibit more than tripled the monthly visitor count. The exhibit quickly helped the conservatory overcome pervasive concerns about the safety of the area widely held by outsiders and suburbanites.

Community vitality is at the heart of all urban planning. In some instances, the planners (and, yes, even the City of Chicago) have gotten things wrong. Big urban developments at times are achieved at the expense of community vitality. The Kennedy Expressway demolished several neighborhoods in it’s path, that have never quite recovered their cohesion. This isn't often by design, rather it’s an unintended consequence of well intentioned, if misguided, plans. Planners try to identify the elements that will help a community to improve. When they pinpoint essential elements of a healthy community like housing, jobs, schools, and transit, elements of culture are often forgotten. But ask anyone what they love most about their community and they are very likely tell you about the architecture, the history, the parks, and the ethnic restaurants. The culture is what makes a place unique, and is typically what residents and visitors celebrate and hold most dear about their community.
A cultural plan has in it ideas and strategies about how to grow and sustain community vitality through arts and culture. Implicit in a cultural plan is that we agree that arts and culture are important, essential ingredients for our city and our communities. When we talk about culture, you get to decide what that includes. For some it’s how you express your ethnic heritage and could include everything from costume and cuisine, to decorative arts and storytelling. For others it is about what you do when there's nothing you HAVE to do, but can do what you LOVE to do, like cooking, or knitting, playing the piano, reading or building Lego cities. It’s not just hobbies; it’s what feeds your soul, makes you glad you are alive. 
During the process to create a new cultural plan for Chicago we are engaging the public in a series of meetings, from open-ended Town Halls to more intimate Neighborhood Cultural Conversations. We want you to tell us, “What are the aspirations and hopes for your community and how can the arts and culture play a role in that future?” It’s your opportunity to play cultural planner along with me and tell us what we can do to make the City of Chicago an even greater place to live, work, visit, study, create and thrive. In the process we hope to inspire you to take action alongside us and continue the dialogue beyond the meetings we convene, by engaging online, meeting again with your neighbors, finding collaborators and taking action. Creative action!

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