Boston Creates: Between the Lines
With the goal of illuminating an alternative path to community engagement, Department of Play was invited to form a team of artists to join the Boston Creates cultural planning effort.
Since the post-1960s critique of urban renewal in the U.S., cities have been trying to re-imagine how to elicit and channel residents’ voices in city planning. A key dilemma of the “participatory planning” approach is how a plan can account for and reflect many, often contradictory opinions, while also making meaningful changes toward improving residents’ quality of life. Hindering these efforts is the fact that strategies to gather public input often involve languages, vocabularies, visual representations, and engagement formats that planners take for granted, yet which are unfamiliar to the wide public they intend to reach. Furthermore, given the intense pressure to show measurable results, cities tend to prioritize streamlined participation methods that limit the style and scope of possible engagement. Free from these practical constraints, art can illuminate an alternative path.
The City of Boston has been making impressive strides in connecting with residents through experimental channels. Initiatives like the Office of New Urban Mechanics and the transportation planning project Go Boston 2030 have involved multi-pronged efforts to engage residents by meeting them where they already are: along their everyday commute, at their workplace, or online. The City’s collaborations with philanthropy and local partners have inspired a broad range of possibilities, including revamping the community meeting. Thus, when Department of Play was invited to form a team of artists to join the Boston Creates cultural planning effort, we saw an opportunity to build on this foundation through artistic engagement.
Department of Play (DoP) is a “lost city department” in a quest to build the type of city that would have such a city department. We create “temporary play zones”: public play events in everyday spaces like plazas, vacant lots, and crosswalks. The play zones interrupt the routine flow and invite passersby to explore each other’s differences while recognizing each other’s rights. They often involve building fictional worlds with large bold shapes made of various materials, which allow participants to quickly and viscerally transform their ideas into built form.
For Boston Creates, one of our main goals was to assemble a team of “artist-ethnographers” who would infuse the participatory process with their creative energy.
For Boston Creates, one of our main goals was to assemble a team of “artist-ethnographers” who would infuse the participatory process with their creative energy. The artist-ethnographers pushed questions of what it means to participate and to be represented in thoughtful ways. Heather’s project displayed unique voices expressed in the planning meetings on a city fleet vehicle. Shaw Pong recognized that some Bostonians did not feel comfortable or heard in the community dialogues, so she created intimate conversation spaces better suited to them. Leo crossed the city in all directions, documenting just how widely arts and cultural practices vary across Boston.
Our other primary goal was to bridge the structured participation process of Boston Creates with the candid perspectives of residents encountered in the street, who may have otherwise not heard of the planning process.
Our other primary goal was to bridge the structured participation process of Boston Creates with the candid perspectives of residents encountered in the street, who may have otherwise not heard of the planning process. For this purpose, Maria Vidart and I, DoP co-founders, inhabited personas of historically ambiguous curators. Over several months, we routinely hung images of Boston’s arts futures—built out of custom-made blocks at planning workshops or submitted online—right on the sites imagined by their creators, where they could be ascertained by passersby.
This performative act opened up the kind of conversation we aim for with our play zones. One person asked questions about the place of art in low-income neighborhoods when we hung a vision for an arts incubator in a vacant brewery across the street from a public housing complex. Another eyed us incredulously when we said we were working with the City. A third hung the image of a proposal for his vacant theater in his office rather than leave it on the building’s exterior. Throughout these excursions, people were curious about what we were doing, and eagerly voiced their opinions about particular ideas, the City, the planning process, and their relationship to arts and culture in general. In other words, they were engaged. For a brief moment of unexpected encounter in the business of everyday life, they paused, took time to ask us questions, and reflected about how they experience art.
For a brief moment of unexpected encounter in the business of everyday life, they paused, took time to ask us questions, and reflected about how they experience art.
DoP is continually inspired by artists who re-imagine civic participation through both systemic and ephemeral ways. At one end of the spectrum is Augusto Boal’s longstanding Theater of the Oppressed, and later Legislative Theater, which first offered new ways for residents to address local problems, then to inform policymaking—all through theater. At the ephemeral end is Alfredo Jaar, who built a museum out of paper and, one day later, burned it down to engage residents’ imagination in considering the need for a local cultural institution. Artists like Jeanne van Heeswijk and Theaster Gates collaborate across disciplines and with local communities to not only re-imagine, but to remake the city.
Overall, artists’ open-ended approaches get to the heart of affective relations between residents, culture, and the city while reflecting the complexity of lived experience. Artists bring to the planning table the possibility to move from collecting rational data via traditional question-and-answer structures used in participatory planning to eliciting glimpses at what lies between the lines of what is said. Art connects with what is just out of reach, bringing the blurry edges momentarily to the forefront and offering a clarity that words are often unable to address directly. It helps build understanding beyond what residents say they want, to what they mean.
However, for these situation-specific art processes to valuably contribute to planning, necessitates translation and time to forge a shared understanding and a common process, as well as new approaches to data analysis. Although the planning team of Boston Creates was open and warmly curious about what we could offer, our efforts were at times caught between being relevant to an engagement phase focused on qualifiable data collection and creating a space that could elicit and reflect on latent ideas, problems, or possibilities. We worked together to address these issues, but future iterations would benefit from bringing artists to the strategy table earlier, to find a shared understanding of both the intricacies of the planners’ and artists’ tasks, and to collaboratively design engagement. With enough dialogue, partnerships like these hold immense promise to produce results beneficial to both the city’s publics and the resulting urban environments.
María L. Vidart-Delgado, Co-founder of Department of Play contributed as editor to this essay.