Where does creativity live? Can the highest level of cultural production come from down the street? What does it mean to be a good neighbor, a good steward? How does that look when there are so many forces at work keeping people isolated? How do you see value in what others discard? Can we learn to talk about moments of success in our struggling neighborhoods, not as random and magical, but as sophisticated flexibility? What is civic empathy?
These are some of the questions Place Lab, a University of Chicago partnership between Arts + Public Life and the Harris School for Public Policy, explored in an exercise last year conducted with the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation: it’s the articulation of a set of nine principles collectively called Ethical Redevelopment.
Rooted in artist-led, neighborhood-based development work actively occurring on Chicago’s South Side, these evolving set of principles emerged from the work of artist Theaster Gates, Jr. For more than a year, Place Lab steeped itself in his projects and practices, and through documentation and implementation has supported the ongoing growth of the artist’s South Side cultural investments, such as Stony Island Arts Bank and the developing Arts Block at the University of Chicago. In addition to observing and participating in the work that Gates directs, Place Lab compiled a series of interviews with individuals who have current or past roles in the work. These interviews included a diverse group of artists, collectors, arts administrators, community leaders, organizers, neighbors, funders, staff, personal and professional associates, enthusiastic advocates, early adoptees, believers, supporters and even skeptics. This catalog of conversations, in tandem with the values espoused by Gates, have been distilled into our approach for mindful city building: Ethical Redevelopment.
Gates may be unique—he has a strong and particular point of view in his space practice—but he’s not the only one who loves where he’s from and where he lives. There are champions of place all over, with complimentary work happening in many other parts of the country. As we document, create stories about the process, implement intervention and develop strategy, Place Lab will avoid prescriptive declarations or the propagation of models. Context, histories and the players matter in redevelopment work, and what Place Lab shares is not meant to be duplicated. What works in Chicago—in our buildings, with our artists, with the publics we assemble, with our neighbors, with the funders who join—should provide a flexible methodology that can be customized for other locations but never replicated.
The body of content that forms the basis of the nine principles is not new thinking. Smart city discussions have a huge focus on “innovation,” but there should be caution against preoccupation with the newest, freshest ideas. For centuries, regular folks have been doing important work to make their communities successful and creating rituals to keep their communities alive. They have turned shacks into juke joints, stoops into entrepreneurial outdoor offices, corners into performance venues, vacant lots into adventurous playgrounds. They have not made something from nothing. They have seen possibility where others see only limitation.
Instead of calling Ethical Redevelopment new or innovative, it’s more accurate to consider Ethical Redevelopment as an atypical process for transformation. A people-focused approach to development is simply not as widely practiced as traditional forms of neighborhood development that prioritize profit over community. “Gentrification is a standing word for lots of other things that people really mean,” Gates explained in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “When people in poor black communities use the word gentrification, they’re asking specific questions. If something good happens here, will I be forced out? Can I still afford to live here? Will the social constructs that governed how I lived here change? Everybody’s concerned with those questions around affordability, livability and quality of life. Sometimes, growth or change in a place happens without sensitivity, but it’s completely reasonable that you could have ethical redevelopment that would be sensitive to people who already live in a place, while making room for other people to live, work, shop, travel and feel safe.”
Values, process, and aim are what distinguish Ethical Redevelopment from gentrification: robust public life requires a belief in and devotion to place in advance of investment. It’s important to note that much of the work that Gates is engaged in on the South Side of Chicago happens outside of places on the cusp of change. The work is taking place in stigmatized neighborhoods that have been systematically ignored over several generations.
The Nine Principles are part of a living, evolving approach to making cities successful. Like our cities, they’re a work in progress. Ethical Redevelopment is an approach that allows a city to work in the interests of all, not just the few. It is our hope that people everywhere can apply these principles to the places they care about. To the cities they call home.
The 9 Principles of Ethical Redevelopment
Ethical Redevelopment is about shifting the value system from conventional financial and development practices to conscientious interventions in the urban context. The following explanations of the Nine Principles have been edited for space. Review the full principles in this downloadable document.
1. Repurpose + Re-propose
Concepts: possibility, transgression
Artistry is alchemy—it allows one thing to become another. Be an alchemist in your community. In new hands, there is renewed possibility for the discarded and overlooked. This includes people as well as materials. Who is around you, and how are they valuable? How does repurposing objects live alongside the rehabilitation or reclamation of people? How can your work become a pipeline for training individuals on whom others have given up?
Repurpose with new purpose. People, property, and materials can be remixed and reimagined if you imagine a new use. This, in effect, becomes a transgressive act by replacing allegiance to profit-as-motivator and allows for other considerations to drive the creation of place. Objects and projects do not have to be monetized to be useful.
2. Engaged Participation
Concepts: neighborliness, localism, access points
Invite others to get involved. Approach participants authentically as you would a neighbor. Work with the people who believe in the place: locals embedded by proximity, those connected by a desire to contribute or commitment to a mission. Provide multiple access points or ways to participate. Participation drives the transformation of a place and of those involved. Work as a resident and citizen to spur civic engagement, drawing a relationship between citizen participation and citizen power.
The value of the relationship is in the intimacy, not in the duration. Engage for as long as it makes sense to engage. This intimacy sparks commitment to a vision, and the neighbors, staff, and visitors become participatory producers—more than “consumers”—by tapping into different access points to find themselves in the work. The work is for many, with many, and, ultimately, by many.
3. Pedagogical Moments
Concepts: knowledge transfer, social responsibility
Moments of learning and teaching unfold in all aspects of work. Consider the steps in each project that could be instructive. By tapping into the existing, possibly latent talent within a community and putting it to use for the community, exchanges for transfer of knowledge reach across identities, roles, practices, disciplines, generations, and localities. Young people need opportunities to experiment, gain experience, and imagine their future. Adults, who are looking for new chances, benefit as well. Bring everyone along for the journey. Cultivate the talent they bring and foster new talent in work that excites them. Experience is the teacher; exposure is the lab.
Whether creating programs that capitalize upon existing talent or establishing workshops, training programs, and business accelerators, the ability to recognize moments for knowledge and skill sharing is a part of one’s social responsibility, effectively deepening the network of relationships within a community, its ecosystem, and the larger social economy. Without leveraging these structures and moments for pedagogical exchange, opportunities for teaching, learning, and cultivating talent are lost.
4. The Indeterminate
Concepts: imagination, intuition, faith
Suspend knowing. Embrace uncertainty. Accept ambiguity. Allow the work to offer solutions; ask questions in response to “problems” facing a neighborhood or city. Resource inequity can be reduced with imagination. The variable of the unknown is built into Ethical Redevelopment, into the programming and the acquisition of resources. Use faith and intuition to guide methodology, a process that’s left undetermined, undefined, or slowly revealed, allowing for a fluidity, dynamism, and creativity that respond to developments in the moment and change direction as needed. Strictly profit‐based entrepreneurs work to eliminate uncertainty, opting for careful strategizing and coordination to reach defined goals. Part of the unorthodoxy of Ethical Redevelopment is that while it is vision-driven, the route to achieve the vision is open-ended. Believe in your project but resist believing there is only one path to achieve it. You can begin without a clear understanding of your end game—your intuition is just as powerful as a well-designed strategic plan.
Concepts: aesthetic, desirability
Everyone deserves to see and be a part of the transformation of their spaces into places. Beauty is a basic service often not extended to “forgotten parts” of the city. It is an amenity considered incongruent with certain places. Beautiful objects come from and belong in blighted spaces, just as they do in high-investment areas of a city. Creative people can play a pivotal role in how this happens. Beauty has magnetism. It defines character. It promotes reverence. Design can enhance the desirability of a neglected site, corridor, or block while illustrating the reverence and care of a neighborhood and its residents. Aesthetics may speak loudly or whisper, but either way they draw people in. It provides value, respect, importance, and regard for the character of a community.
6. Place Over Time
Concepts: flexibility, nimbleness, aggregation, anchor space
A sense of place cannot be developed overnight. Actions, interventions, site-specific experiments, and investments need adequate time to be realized. Likewise, neglect, abandonment, and divestment of a place happen over time. Pockets of cities deteriorate gradually. Thus activation, density, and vibrancy require cultivation for an extended duration, not short, quick fixes. Place is more about the people who inhabit it and the activities they engage in than the space itself. To be an anchoring space in a city, people have to be willing to spend time there. Hot, hip spots come and go. Trendy locations fall short of connecting “need” with “space.” Need changes over time and, as a result, space has to change over time. Spaces have to be flexible and nimble. Place‐based work is about the aggregation of years of activity and organic development of relationships. When it works, people visit and return in response to offerings that are authentic to the spirit of the place. Intentionality resonates. Visitors can shift from users to participants. They can become invested in the sustainability of the place and contribute to the quality of the experience. Participants come to rely on anchor spaces as consistent resources of cultural and spiritual sustenance.
7. Stack, Leverage + Access
Concepts: scaling up, strategy
An investment in yourself, in your ideas and projects, sends a signal to those watching your work. It is critical to have skin in the game, to have something at stake even if the investment is sweat equity. Making change requires conviction and commitment utilizing belief, brainpower, energy, time, and dogged perseverance. Projects like these require belief and motivation more than they require funding. Whether an intervention is a single project, location, or gesture, it has impact and reverberation. Early small success can enable the next project. Leverage the attention garnered by the work to amplify it. Let the work attract more believers. A good idea is as crucial as establishing relationships with funders, gaining access to multiple spheres of influence, and incorporating expertise. Turn interest and excitement into investment. Resource streams should be diverse, stacked, and bundled to meet the price tags of your projects. Over time, a project from your initial days of engagement and experimentation can mature. Something that you passionately believed in, but had little external backing for, can grow in scale and scope to become a sophisticated version that many stakeholders support and believe in. Demonstrating capacity permits access to greater resources. Proof of infrastructure is persuasive.
Concepts: ecosystem, diverse entities
Charismatic leaders are ineffective without teams. Both are strengthened by the presence of the other. Complementary skills and practices advance work. Collaboration allows for some of the best work to emerge from a process. Teams benefit from careful curation and exchanges across specialty. Projects need visionaries, believers, implementers, collaborators, and evaluators. A vibrant constellation or a rich ecosystem is responsive to the pairings and groupings that suddenly emerge. Some webs of connectivity mature more slowly, gradually revealing formerly unforeseen affinities. A project taps into a particular kind of power when it refuses to be singular, when it takes up space and assembles believers from disparate corners.
Concepts: the thing that makes the thing, hang time
Regardless of regional circumstance, many of our cities suffer the same challenges—neglect, population loss, and abandoned buildings that defy the limits of the neighborhood’s imagination. Often, the proffered solution is singular. But one building, individual, or program cannot reroute a neighborhood’s trajectory. A community needs a platform: a foundation that creates new social possibilities, a structure that incubates new economic or artistic prospects. A platform is a mechanism to propel work forward—it creates conditions of multiplicity, compounds ideas, expands relationships, germinates opportunities, and widens access. A stage or platform is often invisible. It operates not in service of itself but to reinforce what can be.
A just city is required to facilitate platforms that engage those who do not understand their power and feel cheated out of the right to publicly demonstrate their power. Platform building means developing opportunities for people to gather and commune. The event—what is happening—is beside the point. The point is that folks are meeting, exchanging, and learning. Create intentional hang time, which builds community, through a space that encourages deep conversation, new friendships, and, ultimately, a community of people who want to be a part of transformative work in the neighborhood. A space where like‐minded folk can come and say, “What else can be done? What can I do 10 blocks away from my block? How do I share what I love to do with others?”
Isis Ferguson is program manager for Place Lab, an urban arts community development initiative at the University of Chicago, which documents and demonstrates arts and culture-led urban transformation.