“By the time I was 12 or 13 years old, I knew that someday I would have something to do with influencing place,” says Carol Coletta of growing up in South Memphis. From co-developing the first condominium conversion in downtown Memphis to serving as executive director of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, Coletta has proven her 12-year-old self right. As CEO of CEOs for Cities, she helped gather ideas for improving the urban realm via text messaging. While director of ArtPlace, a collaboration of 13 national and regional foundations and six banks, Coletta tapped Impresa Consulting to measure economic, civic, and other impacts of creative placemaking, a movement in which she is considered a leading advocate.

Photo courtesy KnightFoundation.org
Carol Coletta

Earlier this year, Coletta left ArtPlace to join the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation as vice president of community and national initiatives, where she continues championing creative placemaking for the Miami-based nonprofit. Immediately prior to this interview, for example, she spent the afternoon with artist Theaster Gates, after meeting with Groupon about measuring local economic activity. Overseeing youth leadership, social entrepreneurship, and other programs, the new position allows Coletta to explore creative placemaking within an expanding vision of community engagement.

How do you define creative placemaking, and has that definition changed over time?

I approach it as investing in art at the heart of strategies that increase the vibrancy of places. Now, I might alter that definition to say imagination is at the heart of this portfolio of strategies. I just saw Theaster Gates, and I think even he would say a small developer, tactical urbanist, or an architect or landscape architect can possess the imagination and soulful perspective to transform a community. A lot of people in addition to artists can be creative placemakers.

Is local knowledge key to getting creative placemaking right?

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting the best person in the world to design a project; local, national, or international competition is a good thing, because everybody gets better from it. Yet I also think that over the long term, it takes local knowledge of programming to animate a place.

How would you visualize that vibrancy, the intended outcome?

A vibrant place is where more people are visible. More people, of all stripes, are using the space for a variety of reasons, and you feel their presence.

That definition seems to have a social-engineering slant in common with workplace design trends. Is vibrancy intended to foster business?

When you consider that, by 2020, some are predicting that 40 percent of us will be working freelance, then you realize the importance of public space and third place [a person’s community anchor beyond home or workplace, a concept attributed to sociologist Ray Oldenburg]. It’s incumbent upon those who make public space to be asking the same questions as those who make corporate workplaces. I would also note that the cross-fertilization of ideas is not limited in any way to ideas with commercial value.

Is creative placemaking more deeply considered for cities’ benefit, compared to shorter-lived development movements like sports stadiums or festival marketplaces?

I disagree with an assumption here. The stadiums that were well sited, designed, and programmed do have staying power, and the ones that weren’t, don’t. The same is true of creative placemaking. It’s not all created equal. A lot of unsuccessful projects were done in the name of creative placemaking. It’s still experimental, although one of these experiments costs a lot less than a stadium.

What was the appeal of the Knight Foundation?

The Knight is all about experimentation. Our president expects nothing less than risk. I just did a portfolio review and he asked, “Where’s the idea that makes me nervous?” Being here gives me the chance to work in the most interesting group of cities, thinking of those cities as real-time labs for new ideas, and seeing what works in different circumstances.

How does this position culminate lessons learned in your career?

There are two or three issues I’m fascinated by. One is how you use place to accelerate talent and opportunity. This is critical to intergenerational economic mobility, which is a fundamental part of the “American Dream.” Zip code should never be destiny. Also, there’s a question of supporting innovation in City Hall in a sustained way. Look at how quickly some municipal transit departments have changed: What principles emerge from those efforts that can be applied to other city departments? One more question is how do you really harness all of your talent and put it to work?

These concerns are not entirely pegged in the built environment.

When I was at ArtPlace and the Mayors’ Institute, there was a sense that every problem had to be solved by art or design. At Knight, I don’t have to come at a problem with a preconceived notion of what will solve it. If you’re running a city with limited dollars, you want to make sure you’re investing correctly. It’s really important for us to explore and learn without bias on cities’ behalf.

How does this work inform the making of buildings?

Buildings still get built that don’t relate to the street or lack pedestrian approaches, but architects know those are mistakes. Although architects may have already come to most of the big breakthroughs regarding place, we can continue to shed light on questions that they or their clients may not be asking. In the coming months at Knight, you’ll see how we are supporting architects and planners to that end.