crowdArtPrize attracted more than 400,000 people this year to enjoy 1,536 pieces of art scattered throughout Grand Rapids. The 19-day event is coming to a close this week as the public and art experts determine winners of a $260,000 and $300,000 prize.

big artThe public vote just narrowed down their favorite top twenty pieces and visitors have a chance to cast their final votes until midnight on October 9. A juried panel of art experts will also determine a separate winner, and both will be announced at the ArtPrize Awards on October 10.

ArtPrize does more than recognize artists; it attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors, boosts economic activity an estimated $22 million, and gives Grand Rapids residents something to be proud of. This is large-scale placemaking that has a dramatic impact.

Although other communities would struggle to host a similar event, elements of ArtPrize can and should be replicated across the state:


Celebrate art and local culture

Let art and cultural presentations take over public and private spaces. Allowing visitors to freely travel through interesting, attractive, and engaging pieces of art, as they do during ArtPrize, gives people an excuse to visit downtown. They’ll fill the streets, get something to eat, and enjoy the local environment.

Engage the publicstreet

ArtPrize gives visitors a chance to vote for their favorite pieces, which eventually awards one winner a $260,000 prize. Anything that empowers residents to make decisions, participate, share ideas, or contribute in some way, will be a more powerful and memorable experience.

Host an event that’s welcoming to all

Ensuring an event is accessible to all kinds of people is an important consideration. Make sure activities are accessible to people with disabilities, the young and old, and are welcoming to people of all backgrounds and cultures. Consider geography, venue, theme, cost, food choices, and language options to ensure the event is welcoming to everyone who may attend. The more people in attendance, the stronger the impact on the community.

Use effective messaging and technology tools

ArtPrize has a strong social and traditional media presence to promote the event and recognize participating artists. Visitors also have the ability to download an app to their smart phone to vote for their favorite pieces, learn about Grand Rapids, and get updates on the competition. In 2014, it’s crucial for communities to share information, promote events, and allow for visitor engagement through technology.

clocksGo with the flow

Grand Rapids has been full of activity since ArtPrize started. Instead of being strict about what people could and couldn’t do, the city seemed to go with the flow. Children played in city fountains; street performers entertained passerbys; artists not formally part of ArtPrize shared their work in public spaces. Yes, police helped patrol busy intersections, but the city didn’t feel over-controlled. People were free to do what was fun, comfortable, and safe.

Art will be on display in Grand Rapids through October 12. I encourage you to explore the event and brainstorm how you could incorporate elements of ArtPrize through events in your own community. Even if you miss ArtPrize this year, Grand Rapids has a lot to offer and the city would be happy to host your visit any time of year!



UIX Discussion: A philanthropic perspective on designing cities

UIX Discussion: A philanthropic perspective on designing cities

As the city government continues to get itself sorted out (Detroit passed a resolution last week to return powers to elected officials but keep the emergency manager in control of the city’s bankruptcy process), residents and visitors keep doing what they’ve been doing: being innovative, creative, and promoting community.

Last week, the Urban Innovation Exchange (UIX) hosted an event in Detroit as a way to advance the city’s innovation movement. They hosted a series of talks, presentations, and tours to highlight ways residents in cities around the country are improving their communities one small project at a time.

Small has a big impact

At Wednesday’s forum, The Art of Place, attendees heard from 11 creative leaders who are spearheading unique placemaking projects. Organizers from Detroit SOUP, The Alley Project, and others represented some of the city’s innovative projects, but the audience also got to hear about interesting projects across the country. To highlight a few:


UIX Presentation: The art of placemaking

UIX Presentation: The art of placemaking

CoSIGN Cincy is a way to change the perception of a neighborhood by allowing artists to create new signs for local businesses in Cincinnati. Organizers hosted a competition that paid for the development of the top-10 signs.

The project’s ability to connect unlikely people – artists, business owners, engineers, city zoning officials, and the greater community – makes it a great placemaking project that has a clear impact on the area’s local economy. Not only do new, unique signs improve the streetscape’s aesthetics, some owners said foot traffic nearly doubled after the sign was installed.

Eve Picker is active in the fields of design, architecture, and community and real estate development. She founded CityLAB in Pittsburgh (a self-described as “a do tank, not a think tank”) and, a new real estate crowdfunding platform to raise equity for transformational real estate projects. In her UIX presentation, she walked us through the costs and returns of small, community-led projects (such as a street market) vs. those of large, top-down projects (such as an athletics stadium). Eve urged the audience to help change the way our elected officials think about change, and do what we can to support the more creative, innovative, and small community-led initiatives.

Food, education, and entrepreneurship

Dlectricity: Artists projecting images on a garage near the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit

Dlectricity: Artists projecting images on a garage near the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit

At UIX’s Thursday forum, The Future of Food, a variety of food entrepreneurs and food access advocates shared their successes and lessons to an engaged audience.

Sustainability was the main focus of the speakers from the CDC Farm & Fishery (Detroit), Rid-All Green Partnership (Cleveland), and Tiny Diner (Minneapolis): the two former being urban farming and aquaponics operations and the latter being a neighborhood food system in the form of a restaurant.

Education was a large part of most of the featured programs, bringing together equity and health. The Food Trust (Philadelphia), Food Revolution Cooking Club (Pittsburgh), and Detroit Food Academy (Detroit) are active with youth and often work in schools to educate students about nutrition and cooking. FoodLab Detroit and (revolver) (Hamtramck) offer new venues to showcase food entrepreneurs and engage the community.

There was clear consensus and optimism among the speakers to move away from an industrialized, one-size-fits-all food system for local, customized networks that consider social and environmental costs.

Making place with art

Dlectricity: Light stage on Warren and Woodward

Dlectricity: Light stage on Warren and Woodward

Detroit also hosted annual creative events last week, the Detroit Design Festival and Dlectricity. With more than 50 art displays or discussions throughout the week, the city’s Midtown and Downtown was full of activity, art, and people. Arts and culture are essential components of a thriving, knowledge-based economy. A healthy creative sector attracts and retains residents and businesses, and produces economic benefits.

Detroit seemed to be the champion of placemaking last week: the city prioritized people, place, conversation, and creativity. All components of a healthier, more vibrant city.

group shotThroughout the summer, kids showed up to the Berston Field House in Flint around 4:00 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The recreation center is known for its boxing and basketball programs, but these students came for a somewhat less popular sport – bicycling.

picking-out-bikes-blog-inlineThe Berston Bicycle Club Project started in 2012, when founder Angela Stamps moved back to Flint after spending years in Los Angeles. She started riding in California out of necessity – her car had gotten repossessed so she needed a low-cost way to get around. Her boyfriend bought her a bicycle and her life was never the same after that.

“A bike can change everything,” Angela said. “The community thinks they have scarce resources, but what do they have? A used bicycle fleet.”

The Berston Bicycle Club is a nine-week class for Flint youth ages 10-18. Students ride for at least an hour-and-a-half two to three times a week and if they complete the program (ride a minimum of twice per week), they take home a free bike, helmet, bag, and safety gear.

The main goal of the program is to give kids a mode of transportation and teach them about bike safety, but students learn a ton more than that: they get healthy, meet new friends, learn about their city, and gain valuable independence.

cute-kid-blog-inlineEncouraging youth to bike can lead to changes throughout the community. Angela said since the program began, there seems to be more people biking throughout Flint and a wider acceptance for narrowing roads and adding bike lanes. Although she doesn’t think the bike club has facilitated the change alone, seeing more bicyclists on the street encourages others to do the same.

Bicycling can have a positive effect on a community’s health and well-being. In Boston, for example, leaders went so far as to prescribe low-income patients free bike-share membership to help tackle obesity, heart disease, and other illnesses. Research also shows that walking and biking improves mood, attitudes, diet, and happiness – something everyone has room to improve on.

And, possibly most importantly, biking gives everyone equal opportunities. Public spaces shouldn’t be designed for cars, they should be designed for people. Building trails, protected bike paths, and designing streets for all users is a great way to prioritize democracy and equality.

getting-ready-blog-inline“Some kids spend their entire summer indoors playing video games, sitting on the computer, and watching TV,” Angela said. “They need to get out of the house and see new places in their city. Biking gives them a mode of transportation and the independence to explore, go to school, and get to work without having to depend on anybody.”

Fostering independence, healthy lifestyles, and stronger communities is exactly what the Berston Bicycle Club is about. Read the complete case study here and learn how to replicate a similar project in your own community.


The Michigan Main Street Center recently published Ten Years of Excellence: The Economic Impacts of Main Street in Michigan. With more than 45 communities participating in the program, benefits have spread across the state.


Michigan Main Street participant Boyne City is able to draw large crowds to their downtown for special events.

The state-led program started in 2003 with the goal to help communities revitalize their historic downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts. Similar to MML’s placemaking strategy, the Main Street Program encourages communities to expand on their unique assets and fill gaps where necessary. This model is a community-driven Four-Point Approach® of placemaking that highlights design, economic restructuring, promotion, and organization.

Boyne City is a Michigan Main Street Master Level Community.

Boyne City is a Michigan Main Street Master Level Community.

According to the report, the Michigan Main Street Program has:

  • Boosted community investment: Over $200 million has been invested in Main Street buildings, infrastructure, and public spaces.
  • Improved business and expanded job opportunities: 250 new businesses have been established and more than 1,300 new jobs have been created in Main Street districts.
  • Increased tax revenue: Local property tax revenues in Main Street districts see an estimated $3 million more each year because of improvements to downtown buildings. The state has also seen an increase in sales tax from new businesses in Main Street districts by $3.1 million each year.
  • Leveraged community volunteers: The value of volunteer hours spent in Main Street districts equates to nearly $8 million.

Michigan Main Street City: Boyne City

Boyne City sidewalk improvements enhance the aesthetics of the community.

Boyne City sidewalk improvements enhance the aesthetics of the community.

Boyne City has already implemented Main Street initiatives and now serves as a mentor to other communities. As highlighted in an MML case study the Main Street Program helped Boyne City leaders:

  • Create successful downtown events, including a farmers market.
  • Invest more than $6 million in downtown infrastructure.
  • Found a local economic development team of community stakeholders.
  • Help property owners with facade renovations.
  • Attract new residents and businesses.
  • Partner with a private developer on a multimillion dollar mixed-use project.
  • And simply create a downtown residents and visitors could enjoy!

Learn about Boyne City’s Main Street improvements here.

Important initiatives like Michigan Main Street are strengthening communities and increasing resident quality of life. We’re glad to support and continue these sort of projects through placemaking, education, and our policy framework.