Reflecting on the Milwaukee Method of Creative Placemaking to Rebuild Our City
The Milwaukee Night Market is returning to Downtown Milwaukee this summer through a sustainable strategic partnership with Westown Association and NEWaukee that feels like the perfect culmination of a winding journey.
We are remembering long creative sessions in 2013 in the original NEWaukee basement office of the Grand Avenue where Night Market was incubated. Propelled by a desire for street life on West Wisconsin Avenue that welcomed our generation made of many cultures in Milwaukee, we wondered what we could make. We were aware of the avenue’s vibrant history with shopping, art and public life, and we were also aware how empty and lifeless the street could feel. We wanted to believe, as we still do, that downtown can be a gathering place where neighbors from the many beautiful Milwaukee neighborhoods can enjoy being together day or night. Where we can share a downtown street as one heart of our city.
In that mall basement, we met weekly over many months as NEWaukee and MKE<->LAX, along with our collaborators from beintween and the Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC) to imagine public space possibilities as artists and culture makers. We were supported by a second ArtPlace America grant through the GMC to advance creative placemaking projects based on recent discoveries by NEWaukee in Downtown and beintween in Harambee near the Beerline Trail. Those work sessions were matched each week with sessions in Mayor Tom Barrett’s office organized by his staff, that included staff from the Department of City Development and Department of Public Works. Riverworks Development Corporation and Business Improvement District (Riverworks) and Wisconsin Avenue Milwaukee Development Corporation (WAM-DC) staff and board members often joined us for these City Hall exploratory sessions.
This consistent, creative time as a leadership group with our local government body as a key thought partner supported us to intentionally design Night Market, as well as an expansion of the artery at the Beerline Trail Extension. Both of these creative placemaking projects grew rapidly – not as grassroots efforts, but as cross-sector collaborations with strong intergenerational representation and current experience of the streets where we were making. These distinct projects became the basis of the Milwaukee Method of Creative Placemaking, originally published in 2015.
Now it’s 2021, and we are living in a pandemic that has deeply affected our experience of public health and public space in Milwaukee. We are entering a new phase where public health safety protocols are changing again, and we are searching for what recovery, or rebuilding, of our neighborhoods can mean. We look to our Milwaukee Method and the impact around racial equity possible with our creative placemaking projects to imagine a more inclusive and just Milwaukee.
Recently, the Washington, DC think tank Urban Institute released a report called Embedding Equity into Placemaking: An Examination of the “Milwaukee Method” of Creative Placemaking in Practice, supported by The Kresge Foundation.
The Urban Institute examines the impact of the Milwaukee Method through exploring the models of the Night Market and the current Beerline Trail Neighborhood Development Project which grew from the artery. Urban Institute made a previous 2018 report about the Beerline Trail Project as a creative placemaking case study for community safety, supported by ArtPlace America. In 2019, we asked Urban Institute to work with us in assessing our economic and social impact with these multi-year creative placemaking projects as broad approaches to place-based investing. We are enthusiastic about these key recommendations from the Urban Institute report:
- Funding ongoing data collection and analysis is key.
- Neighborhoods at an inflection point of change and opportunity can allow their economic success to undermine or drive out people of color if equity is not an intentional part of the design and implementation of efforts.
- Design is important: the physical environment can create barriers that affect how people interact in a space.
- Design isn’t everything: outreach and continuous stewardship is an ongoing process.
- The COVID-19 pandemic offers the opportunity to reinforce the value of placemaking activities to create spaces for community while people are distancing.
The Urban Institute describes that during interviews, neighbors and other stakeholders expressed how the Beerline Trail has grown as a place of connection for Harambee, Riverwest and other nearby residents and workers. Connection can feel significant when neighbors can experience feelings of difference, separation and injustice because of race, as can be true in Downtown and throughout Milwaukee. The report emphasizes that, “encouraging buy-in and ownership among residents of color requires time and flexibility. The trail visioning and development process was the first time some were being asked to engage in shaping their community and determining how space would be used.” This requires consistent and creative engagement with neighbors from many generations, including local artists and other creative small business owners who can play an important role in building a shared vision for their neighborhoods.
In 2019, the Beerline Trail Neighborhood Development Project completed a Lifeways Plan with nationally recognized landscape artist and designer Walter Hood of Hood Design Studio and an Equitable Implementation Plan with local urban planning and design consultant GRAEF. These strategic documents outlined vision, goals, and priorities for the next phases of development for the trail and the Harambee neighborhood. The Beerline Trail Project leadership, including Riverworks, City of Milwaukee, MKE<->LAX, GMC, Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) and other trail neighbors and partners, are actively exploring a capital campaign while still engaging neighbors on the trail through creative activities. The Beerline Trail investment continues to respond to neighbors desires for the trail, as noted by one stakeholder in their interview with Urban Institute:
“We want to have a sense of ownership for the public space and its continued use. We’d love to see the space activated more, maybe even similar to the Night Market, drawing people to the trail.”
In the Embedding Equity report, the Urban Institute also makes the case that, “…the Night Market’s activities helped reimagine a space once considered unappealing, unsafe, and inactive and empowered people to think differently about visiting downtown at night.” Over time, the Night Market has impacted both perception and reality by increasing the vibrancy of the street as well as the real estate investments made in and around the Night Market’s physical footprint. The liveliness of Night Market as a free, outdoor street festival comes from a carefully curated mix of local Milwaukee vendors, artists and other creative small businesses. Night Market creatives bring their social networks with a range of racial and other cultural identities from Milwaukee neighborhoods to West Wisconsin Avenue.
The new strategic partnership of Westown Association, as a long-time non-profit development and marketing entity on West Wisconsin Avenue, and NEWaukee, as a local engagement agency, means Night Market can have support to continue its impact for many years.
The City of Milwaukee and other Downtown collaborators are key to this strategic partnership, such as live-work renovation of The Avenue, the Milwaukee Downtown Business Improvement District, WAM-DC and the newly relocated corporation GRAEF. As John Kissinger, President/CEO/Principal, GRAEF expresses so well:
“We build community in our Downtown by gathering together. The Night Market is the perfect event to get us all back together…co-workers, friends, families walking, talking and being together on Wisconsin Avenue. As we welcome our team back to GRAEF’s office at The Avenue we look forward to a new partnership that will surely make the Night Market even better.”
The Milwaukee Night Market returns on West Wisconsin Avenue between 2nd Street and Vel R. Phillips Avenue on Wednesday, August 18, 2021 from 5-10pm.
The Embedding Equity into Placemaking report is one aspect of a media and research project we have underway to explore best practices in creative placemaking and other forms of arts-based community development and engagement in Milwaukee. Based on the report’s recommendations, we intend to practice ongoing evaluation to measure social and economic benefits. We intend to develop an online archive of historic and current local projects. We intend to strengthen the network of regional leaders connected to our projects to continue learning with and supporting each other in our neighborhoods. We intend to refine the Milwaukee Method for neighborhood and city development to posit policy and funding recommendations at local and state levels.
We want creative placemaking initiatives to continue and evolve as innovative development practices throughout our city. These initiatives require a spine of sincere and dedicated investment over many years to transform creative and temporary public space activations to a healthy street culture where any one of us can feel like we belong in Milwaukee.
Join us for Urban Spaceship presented by Greenfire diving into Urban Institute’s ‘Embedding Equity into Placemaking’ report on June 16, 2021 at 9AM. Register here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/urban-spaceship-ep-5-embedding-equity-into-placemaking-pt-1-westown-tickets-156919044085
Is your organization interested in becoming a presenting or supporting sponsor of the Milwaukee Night Market? The event is made possible by the generosity of our corporate supporters. Learn more and contact us at mkenightmarket.com/sponsor.
Co-Written by Angela Damiani, GMC Member and CEO/Co-Founder of NEWaukee and Sara Daleiden, Beerline Trail Project Leader and Founder/Director of MKE<–>LAX