Is Creative Placemaking a good fit for Opportunity Zone planning?


Recently, through approval by the General Assembly and Governor Murphy, 169 census tracts in New Jersey were designated Opportunity Zones (OZs).  The identified OZs are located in municipalities across the state.  These are areas where the state would like to direct growth and that have some market potential to attract the kind of private investments that will help these communities become less distressed over time.

In “The,” John Lettieri and Steve Glickman of the Economic Innovation Group opine that Local leadership is key for successful Opportunity Zones

The primary goal of Opportunity Zones is to encourage long-term equity investments in struggling communities, many of which have been excluded from the benefits of the national economic expansion in recent years. The recent stock market boom and prolonged period of record corporate profitability have resulted in a massive stockpile of unrealized capital gains wealth — over $6 trillion in corporate and individual holdings as of the end of 2017, according to our analysis of Federal Reserve data.

Because of Opportunity Zones, investors are now incentivized to reinvest those dollars into capital-starved, low-income communities. And, because investors are exclusively using their own capital without any up-front subsidy, there is no cap on how much capital can be put to work rebuilding communities. It is a nationally scalable incentive.


NJ Future recently analyzed existing data for the 169 NJ opportunity zones and found some interesting statistics:

-Population growth in the Opportunity Zone tracts is slightly outpacing the statewide population growth rate.

-Change in median rent fall generally in line with the statewide average

-Changes in the median household income overall of the OZs fell short of the state average in 2015.  However, the 83 OZ tracts which are flagged as distressed, identified by the LIHTC (Low Income Housing Tax Credit) program, actually saw a 6.8% increase in median household income.

-The majority of the OZs are within a half mile of a NJ transit station.  Proximity to transit is recognized for greater access to jobs and population growth

-A substantial majority of Opportunity Zones are located in walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods.

The NJ Future report goes on to recommend that the “next step in the implementation process is for the Treasury Department to promulgate regulations for the establishment of Opportunity Funds, the vehicles via which Opportunity Zone investments will be made. It will be important for these regulations not to preclude local expertise, which can help ensure that investments are made in ways that will both provide a return to investors and ensure that community goals are met.”

They go on to say that top-down approaches to development leave no room for local experimentation.  Further, they state that municipal “leaders should treat Opportunity Zones designation as the first step in a holistic policy reform effort.”  There should be a focus on entrepreneurship, reaching across sectors to ensure that local stakeholders are collaborating toward common goals, reinforcing efforts through public/private partnerships and robust local information-sharing.

Those familiar with Creative Placemaking planning and implementation recognize that it is a bottom-up, cross-sector collaborative, creative approach to community development led by local stakeholders inclusive across social strata. At the Center for Creative Placemaking (CCP), we use the acronym “CASE” to ascribe to this Creative Placemaking methodology.  It is Community development utilizing Arts and culture, fostering Social Equity, resulting in Economic growth.  In other words, Creative Placemaking is the intentional integration of artists and arts into community, social and economic development planning.

Why bring Arts into the mix?  Artists have unique capacity to serve as “translators” and “bridge-builders” across cross sector planning and decision-making.  The Kresge Foundation asserts that “This involves agility with code-switching from one professional dialect and perspective to another and identifying overlapping areas of interest that may or may not be obvious. Cross-sector work often requires partnerships and consistent, recurrent opportunities for people from different sectors to build trust and accommodate differences in style, language and ways of framing issues.”

Place planning and implementation which is holistic, inclusive and creatively community engaged fosters other types of longer-term change.  Research conducted by the Kresge Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and other leading funders and institutions indicates that there are numerous benefits to be found at the neighborhood level when development is conducted in this manner.  Among them are greater social cohesion and sense of agency among residents, increased pride and stewardship of place, physical transformation, greater control over community narrative, and improved health and education outcomes.

Artists tell stories no matter in what artistic discipline they specialize.  An artist may not be conversant in water infrastructure, transit, public safety, governance, etc. but can certainly collaborate in and inform decision-making in creative thinking around these issues.    I recently saw a quote that stated:   “Artists are in the business of being professional human beings.”

Kresge CEO Rip Rapson believes that community-development and planning strategies lacking arts, culture and community-engaged design are inherently flawed and not comprehensive. Rapson aspires to having art, culture and community-engaged design be “knitted into the patchwork of land use, housing, transportation, health, environmental, and other systems necessary for stronger, more equitable, and vibrant places.” This focus not only aligns with the Kresge Foundation’s mission, but also with that of Creative Placemaking organizations, both practitioners and promoters, to commit to cross-sector and cross-disciplinary approaches.  Even though Creative Placemaking is a relatively new practice in our country, this methodology is already known to expand opportunity for people with low incomes and historically marginalized groups in America’s cities.

Opportunity Zones are a powerful tool placed in the hands of NJ’s governor and mayors to foster economic growth and transformative changes in our communities.  Rather than take the easy approach and “sell to the highest bidding developers,” visionary community leaders can take the long view to capitalize on this newly identified incentive by enhancing “opportunity” for all of their local citizens through adoption of the Creative Placemaking planning approach.

Click here to see a map of NJ Opportunity Zone census tracts.

Click here to see an Excel spreadsheet of all of NJ’s opportunity zone census tracts and locations.


Author: Suzanne Ishee is President of the Center for Creative Placemaking which, since 2013, has provided advocacy, training, consultancy and thought leadership to advance the field of Creative Placemaking.  She leads the expanding Creative Placemaking presence at NJIT and is the developer of the Certificate in Creative Placemaking  course of study which provides skills building development in cross-sector literacy and direct field practice to effectuate professional capacity to lead CP planning and implementation in community.  To learn more, contact CCP at