Placemaking in Connecticut

I’ve been forced to think about place much more than usual recently. The Economic Development Office of Connecticut (EDC) asked me to join the state’s committee on placemaking, and last week, the group of 80 citizens gathered in the Old Statehouse Building in Hartford to talk about how Connecticut could create places where people would want to live, work and visit. Governor Dannel Malloy was there as well, giving the opening remarks before we broke into smaller groups for more intimate discussions.

As people talked about the places that made them and why those places were so instrumental, you got the sense that placemaking meant different things to different people. The crowd was arts centric, consisting mainly of people on the board at arts and cultural organizations from around the state. Funding for the arts, access to the arts, education about the arts came up a lot. But there were also a fair amount of entrepreneurs and educators sprinkled around the room, and my group talked a lot about investing in infrastructure–public transit, high speed internet, job development–which I guess is what you’d expect. Then the conversation drifted to efforts to give people ownership over their community. Give people a stake in their neighborhoods and they will step up to help make it a wonderful and unique place to live, work and visit.

This got me thinking about SeeClilckFix, a government engagement app that lets citizens report non-emergency issues to their local government that then responds to each individual issue until it is resolved. Things like potholes, broken street lights and garbage dumping are commonly reported issues, but people also make requests for park and bus benches, make beautification requests and even suggest policing policy changes. Some users have been taking it one step further by organizing neighborhood cleanup days and snow shoveling patrols on the site and on third-party apps that use the SeeClickFix API. (disclaimer: I’m currently participating in a paid fellowship at SeeClickFix where I am learning how to run a tech startup from the company’s senior management team).

The idea behind SeeClickFix is that citizens are more likely to care about their neighborhoods if they are an active participant in the community, interacting with their neighbors, business owners and local government. Giving people an opportunity to stake a claim, take responsibility and engage with each other makes a place an attractive place to live, work and visit. Government works better, people want to live in interesting places, entrepreneurs are attracted to the area and local jobs are created.

How can we combine this community engagement with an interest in the arts?

It’s easy to see how placingmaking through art can be a great way to get people to enjoy a place, but getting citizens to participate in art can lead to even better engagement. Bussing inner-city kids to see the Yale Symphony is a start, but a more powerful placemaking strategy would be to get the state’s poet laureate to come to New Haven to lead writing courses for young, aspiring writers, poets and rap artists. Other cities have used this concept by encouraging local graffiti artists to create murals on buildings in urban centers, getting people from the community to beautify the places they live while discouraging tagging. Youth are exposed to art and culture, but in a way that makes sense in the world in which they live and encourages a stake in the community.

So how can Placing Literature help? I don’t know. We’ve talked about making outreach to teachers and school librarians to show them how to use our site to build curriculum around literature and place. Maybe we step up those efforts. How cool would it be for a high school english class to read literature that takes place in their neighborhood, map the locations where they take place and then go visit those places so they can compare the fictional place to the real place? In addition to giving students an enhanced understanding of the book and setting, the lesson would give them a better appreciation for these places and encourage them to participate in the community. The effect would be a citizenry that wants to preserve local culture and make their neighborhoods a wonderful place to live, work and visit.

I thinks it’s time to make it happen. If you are an educator and would like to help, please contact us at info (at) placingliterature.com.

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