Placemaking has recently come under scrutiny for not achieving equitable community development. As one urban Ohio grantmaker recently remarked, “Placemaking is becoming placetaking”. With this in mind, what role can the public humanities play in supporting better models of community development that benefit all who wish to flourish in place?

Photo credit: Mark Turnauckas, Urban Morning Scenery

American cities are by definition places of dynamic change. But the devastation of “urban renewal”, rapid de-industrialization resulting from globalization, and ill-conceived public policy have made ‘progress’ a bad word in distressed urban neighborhoods.

Along with unhealthy change frequently comes a deterioration of cultural memory and a loss of community history. Many great American cities have been divested of important tangible markers of the past as well as intangible qualities of place that once gave meaning to residents’ lives.  As a result, America’s vibrant urban heritage—with its globally significant cultural expressions and its spiritual dimensions—has been greatly diminished.

Predominant models of revitalization have naturally focused on the built environment, either through architectural preservation or, more recently, programmatic placemaking.  But what options exist when the built environment has become too fragmented through neglect, blight or demolition to justify architectural preservation? Or an area has little enough real estate development potential to justify comprehensive placemaking? What if economic inequality and a frayed social fabric have weakened community engagement and therefor hampered development efforts that would include those most in need of improvements in their experience of place?

The public humanities may offer ways to address these questions. Public humanities activities—documentation, interpretation, reflection, and representation—can promote the meaning of place in spite of current conditions and valuation, largely because they privilege the intangible, human dimension of place. Public humanities activities deliver a robust interpretive framework that celebrates living and past cultures, representing them accurately and relevantly for the benefit of diverse, general audiences.

Engaged in this manner, public humanities activities can effectively reconstitute and preserve “spirit of place”. The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) has advocated successfully for the safeguarding and promotion “of the spirit of places, namely their living, social and spiritual nature.” ICOMOS’s 2008 Québec Declaration on the Preservation of the Spirit of Place offers a stirring call for the preservation of both tangible and intangible heritage. Public humanities activities of documentation, interpretation, reflection and representation can be employed to delineate and articulate the spirit of place.  These efforts add value to lived human experience. By adding value first to human experience, public humanities placemaking can support equitable community development and wellness. This may be especially appropriate in communities that have been undervalued or have been misrepresented.

Ohio Humanities is eager to explore ways the public humanities can support equitable placemaking that represents the spirit of place. Our grants support public humanities programs that, strategically envisioned and executed, can help achieve equitable community development goals. Ohio Humanities also offers grants to support heritage tourism initiatives and the environmental humanities, which may benefit from this same approach. If you are seeking funding for projects of this kind, please contact program officer Robert Colby at or 614.461.7802.

— Robert Colby, PhD