SPARK District Ideas: David Fields' Worcester Rebuttal

September 22, 2014 1 comment Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Worcester Massachussetts' Plan for an Arts District was passed in 2002 and provided a working example for Jacksonville to consider when planning the SPARK district. 6 years later, David Fields, provided a critical analasis of the failures and successes of the project. Read the unfolding of the Worcester example after the jump!

To see the original arts district plan as passed by Worcester, check out this link:

David Fields Thesis Proposal:
Arts District Creation in Worcester, Ma


Cities are looking for new ways to redevelop their distressed areas. Many former industrial cities are looking to redevelop these areas through the creation of arts districts. The intent is to attract artists to these districts, to live and work, in order to capitalize on their perceived positive economic externalities. In the case of Worcester, Massachusetts a zoning overlay was drafted to establish an arts district in what is known as Main South. The area runs along Main Street southwest of the city center from Federal Square to an intersection with route 12 and the Blackstone River.1 The intent of the district is to provide live/work space for local artists. In relation to Worcester, this area is densely populated with more than double the density of the city average. The housing stock of the area is very old with the majority of homes built before the Great Depression. The commercial buildings of the area consist of small shops and conveniences, or bodegas, while the light manufacturing or heavy industrial buildings in and around the arts district are late nineteenth century, multilevel, brick structures which are largely empty or abandoned. In short, the physical layout and built environment of the area is very typical of a postindustrial, northern city concentrated in a single dense area located near the city center.

Looking at examples of art communities in SoHo and Chelsea, NY, North Adams, MA, the North East Minneapolis Arts District we can see that artists like to locate in these types of areas. In Worcester, there is a goals outcome mismatch occurring in that artists are not living in this district specifically zoned for them. So what happened, why are artists not locating or relocating here? Is Worcester simply not a great place for attracting artists? An interview by Doreen Manning with Worcester artists concluded that, as of 2010, Worcester does have an appeal for artists, some quotes from the interview include:

“One thing I like about Worcester is that is still has a blue collar feel to it and if you’re an artist working here I think you consider yourself one of those workers.”

“The Worcester arts scene, and the city, is very diverse... with lots of venues unique to Worcester.”

“It would be great if Worcester had more opportunities and more of a cultural district.”

“I am deeply invested in both the arts in Worcester, and wanting downtown Worcester to grow into a destination for the community.”

Other quotes from this interview show local artists’ desire to have a district, a place to call their own:

“The overall umbrella that shelters the artist community and holds it together is somewhat frayed."

"...the current spaces are thinly spread throughout the city, and not on a main, walkable?drag, they say. This, many feel, is what keeps the art scene here from jelling"

"If what is keeping the art scene in Worcester from “jelling” is the lack of a walkable main drag, or the lack of a defined cultural district, for artists to work and display their art, then why are they not utilizing the portion of Main Street designated specifically for that purpose? "

There seems to be more going on in terms of community characteristics or population planning than can be solved by solely identifying problems with zoning as a tool for community building.

All quotes courtesy of Doreen Manning at Worcester Magazine in a 2010 interview with artists Keenan Cassidy, Jonathan Hansen, Veronica Hibbard, Jonathan Lucas, Derek Ring and Cynthia Woehrle.


•How can a city plan for a specific population, in this case, an artist community?

How does a city attract artists to a certain area or stop them from moving away from one?


Traditional land use planning, financial incentives and a loose association of artists are not adequate to plan for and create a community or interest-based territory. The proposition and execution of geographically targeted planning for a specified group requires integration with community principles and a follow through of plan implementation.

Arts Districts:

An Art district, as defined by Americans for the Arts, is a “geographic area of a city where there is a high concentration of cultural facilities, arts organizations, individual artists and arts-based businesses” (Americans for the Arts, 1998). Whether planned for prior to the influx of an artistic population, or overlaid on an existing artist enclave, the district is defined by the resulting high concentration of artists. City governments are interested in creating such districts in order to capitalize on the perceived benefits that artists can bring to their cities. These benefits are commonly viewed as putting vacant buildings back on the tax roll by housing artists and having artists serve as a catalyst for economic revitalization; in short, urban revitalization (Community Partners Consultants, 2002). However, if the revitalization is based on housing artists and their associated industry in an arts district, what happens when the district does not achieve this goal? How does a city attract artists to a certain area or stop them from moving away from one?


The framework for the variations in arts districts created by Anja Wodsak, et al at the Center for Community Innovation at the University of California, will guide this study (2008). These authors divide arts districts into two models, the formal and the informal or planned and unplanned, to highlight the role each model has in neighborhood change. In their case study of two informal arts districts in Oakland, California, Wodsak, et al define formal arts districts as those laid out by a planning agency or other governmental body that generally depend on supportive zoning. The authors then build on the work of Stern and Seifert (1998; 2005) to create a model for informal arts districts, which are clusters of artists colocating in multifunctional spaces of their own volition, or agglomerations of artists.

The informal and the formal variations on arts districts are essentially two differing attempts to categorize communities. For a formalized definition on what constitutes a community, in a broad sense, Ferdinand Tonnies’ work Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (1887) is referenced. Arts districts, as defined by Wodsak et al, have aspects of both Gemeinschaft, which Tonnies states are cohesive social entities based “unities of will”, or strong social bonds, and Gesellschaft, which are networks based more on self- interested parties working together to achieve their individual goals. There can be mixtures of both of these ideas, in varying ratios, in both forms of arts districts, which is consistent with Tonnies conclusion that there are no groups that represent solely Gemeinschaft or Gesellschaft.

To draw on community criteria that are arts specific, the Urban Institute (UI) has developed the Arts and Culture Indicators Project (ACIP). According to UI, the, the ACIP's "recommended phenomena for measurement [are the] presence of opportunities for cultural participation, cultural participation itself, and support for cultural activities"  Building on the work of the indicators project, Jackson, Green and Herranz have developed a framework for arts and cultural research in communities, which they say is “useful for both theory building and practical [quantitative] measurement.”

The four parameters they have found useful are:
1. Presence – the existence of whatever creative expressions a given community values as community assets
2. Participation – the many ways in which people participate in creative [removed]as creators, teachers, consumers, supporters, and so on)
3. Impacts – the contribution of these creative expressions and participation in them to community building outcomes (e.g., community development, stewardship of place, neighborhood pride, improved public safety, etc.)
4. Systems of support – the resources (financial, in-kind, organizational, and human) required to bring opportunities for participation in these creative expressions to fruition.

Less quantitatively, Markusen and Gadwa (2009) have developed a guide for “creative placemaking”, which involves partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shaping the “physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities.” This creative place making process “envisions a more decentralized portfolio of spaces acting as creative crucibles. In each, arts and culture exist cheek-by-jowl with private sector export and retail businesses and mixed-income housing, often occupying buildings and lots that had been vacant and under-used.”

Markusen and Gadwa’s guide is useful in its holistic incorporation of players and geography as well as its fluidity in terms of the seemingly ephemeral nature of culture’s impact on an area. Building off of the physical and social character of the actors creating the culture in a district or a city is the larger collective of artists and the interactions, or lack of, between them and their creative products. Utilizing the notion of planning, specifically creating master plans, like the plan for the arts district, and plans falling short of their intended goals, Bent Flyvbjerg’s Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice (1998) can be examined for framing the arts district. Flyvbjerg’s piece highlights the power struggle and political tension around these master plans, but also, and most importantly for the purposes of the arts district, identifies the problems that occur when plans are taken from a holistic conceptualization to their reality on the ground, with the possible result being a fragmented or piecemeal implementation, or incomplete applications of the holistic plan.

Chang and Lee touch on the holistic sense of plan execution in Renaissance City Singapore: A Study of Arts Spaces (2003) and identify two aspects specific to arts culture that can, without one or the other, stifle planning a space for artists, as they say has happened in their examination of Singapore. These authors explain their definitions of hardware spaces, which are the physical localities where artists are housed, and heartware places, homes for artists. They explain the heartware concept as relating “to more intimate and intangible aspects that transmogrify these structures [living areas] into incubators for the arts.” Chang and Lee note that without the proper planning for hardware spaces and heartware places cities will not be able to benefit from their artists and in turn artists will not reap the benefits of locating in that city. It is, in essence, a much more holistic approach that is needed, in terms of planning and follow through, by a city and its artists in order to “jell” so that each can reap the mutual benefits.


One could argue that the integration of art and urban living began in ancient Egypt or the city- states of ancient Greece, where the notion of the modern city begins, uniting art and the city into a single epigenesis that continues to evolve. Rhonda Phillips, an associate professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Florida identifies the integration of art into the urban environment beginning with the city beautiful movement in the 1890’s (Van Owen). From there a giant leap forward is made to identify modern art districts in North America beginning with the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1950s, then SoHo in the early 1970s, and later on Chelsea, New York, all of which were informal arts districts. While the story of SoHo, et al is well documented, the first formal arts district was created in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s. Since then Los Angeles has gone on to create several arts districts and cultural districts throughout the city. These early pioneers have laid some preliminary groundwork for the current surge in urban centered arts districts.

Traditional population distribution planning occurred with zoning methods and later with employment incentives by planning for the selection of employment sites (Barber, 1977). As artists are almost unanimously self-employed, site selection for a particular form of industry is difficult to create.

Parameters and indicators must be established to identify informal districts and to inform the creation of formal districts. Just as Wodsak, et al build off of the work done by Stern and Seifert to create definitions of formal and informal arts districts, Jackson and Herranz and Jackson, Green and Herranz further developed the typologies of informal and formal arts districts and also add arts and culture-related measures and evaluative criteria to form an indicator system to measure the integration of art into neighborhood quality of life (2002; 2006)

Markusen and Gadwa go on to create another two system model for evaluating arts in planning (2009). The two strategies they develop for integrating art into planning are what they term “designated cultural districts” and “tourist-targeted cultural investments”. Their main idea is to create criteria to evaluate whether or not cities should look at districts to capitalize on their efforts at creative city initiatives, or whether cities should focus on “decentralized mosaics” or areas where cultural activities are dispersed throughout a city’s neighborhoods or even a region. This idea may have some merit, but the fact is that cities have been and are creating districts with specific delineations throughout the country.

These planned districts, or formal districts, are the result of culture-led planning in the hopes of arts led revitalization. As Vivant shows, the legitimacy afforded to formal districts may in fact be their undoing (2009; 2010). Artists are notoriously “footloose” and, according to Vivant, constantly seeking “off” spaces, which she defines as “artistic squats, techno traveller’s party places, and underground
circuses” (Markusen, et al, 2004; 2009). By legitimizing art through planning for it, Vivant believes that, in the eyes of the artist, you turn the “off” space into Squaresville.

As Chapple, et al point out, there is now a contrast between the informal and the formal in arts districts, beyond the delineation of zoning (2011). These authors cite Roy and invoke her distinction between urban informality and formality as a phenomenon of the Third World and First World, respectively (2005). In the case of arts districts the informal or “natural” cultural districts have a positive connotation for their bottom up, pull yourself up by your bootstraps approach, where formal districts are too associated with “intentionality” and displacement of neighborhood identity (Stern and Seifert, 2005; Galligan, 2008).

?So where does that leave planning and arts districts? Markusen and Gadwa state that, what I have defined as formal districts, currently have difficulty in getting off the ground due to reliance on fuzzy theories, a failure to specify goals, and unwillingness to require an evaluation on performance (2009). The criteria they set up to evaluate arts districts are based on economic performance and redevelopment. While the criteria these authors develop could be a useful metric, they are useful only if one can establish a direct link between artists and the economic benefits they bring to a city. As Hoyman and Faricy show, this link is difficult to prove statistically, if at all (2008). Whether or not planning for artists achieves a city’s economic development goals, cities are planning for them anyway, often with the result that the intended population, artists, are not showing up.

Case Study:

The Worcester Arts District in Worcester, Massachusetts is a formal arts district based on the creative city ideology documented by Richard Florida and Charles Landry (2002; 2000). The arts district was formalized with the release of the Master Plan for the district in 2002. As stated in the master plan, “the arts district is a public/private partnership project intended to revitalize this disinvested area of the City [Main South] by promoting the reuse of several underutilized and vacant properties that would be suitable for affordable housing, artist live-work space, performance venues, galleries [and other creative enterprises]”. Excluding the specific geography, these goals are not unique to Worcester nor is the creation of this type of district. The district creation combined zoning changes, public incentives in the form of guaranteed loans, tax breaks, public infrastructure improvements, and marketing efforts by the city.

Over the past decade there has been little change within the borders of the district and there has arguably been further decline3. The creation and implementation of the plan shows that an arts district can be engineered in this setting, but artists are not living or working there, at least not in any measurable concentrations. So how can Worcester create better plans to encourage artists to coalesce in the district?

The easy answer would be guaranteed loans, tax breaks, and incentives. However, Worcester planned for all these things. If the city upheld this section of the plan, it is that much stranger that artists did not capitalize on it. It could be argued that perhaps the city never came through with this portion of the plan, or did so haft-heartedly. The lack of implementation however, could have been due to economically difficult times. Furthermore, every redevelopment project and every municipal plan faces difficulty in monetizing their stated goals, but this does not hinder all redevelopment projects or plans; Worcester still has other redevelopment projects continuing full speed ahead. So what happened and what is currently happening in the arts district?

(The “anchors” for the district, which were laid out in the Master Plan, namely the American Plumbing Museum and Gilrein’s blues bar have since left the district leaving yet more vacant properties.)

Worcester has many notable artists and art venues throughout the city. Could the city benefit from formalizing an informal district? I do not think that this strategy would work as there is no current informal district, simply an “arts scene” consisting of artists living and working throughout the city. Does this give merit to Markusen and Gadwa’s idea of capitalizing on a decentralized mosaic? Possibly, but
that would essentially render all of the city’s plans and efforts into the current district a waste of time.

Also, Markusen and Gadwa claim the downfall of cultural [art] districts is that they are centered on a cultural venue. These districts capitalize on economies of scale by bringing in individual artists, performers, and their audiences from outside the neighborhood and internalize the benefits in those cultural facilities that the performers are located in, thus detaching the benefits from the neighborhood.
This is not the case in Worcester where the intent is to have artists living and working in the district.

Furthermore, these authors note the benefits of a decentralized mosaic by citing studies of decentralized artistic districts in Chicago and Silicon Valley that reveal expanded participation in the arts, but Worcester does not have a problem with artistic participation, it has a problem with planning a space for its artists, one in which they can coalesce around and participate in to create a working arts district (Wali,et al, 2002; Alvarez, 2005).

As it seems that Worcester had all the requirements to make an arts district that artists would like to live in, it makes an interesting case for examining why artists do not. By examining Worcester and the creation of its arts district I hope to determine why formal arts districts may not attract artists to better understand how to plan for specific populations through the lens of integrating arts into planning. While it seems strange to examine a district to find out why its intended population is not living there, it is crucial to understand what happened in the city to determine where it can go from here. Can the district still attract artists and achieve its goals? By looking at both formal and informal districts that have attracted their intended population, assuming these exist, we can apply these techniques to what would seem to be a custom made district in Worcester.


The methodology for this study will consist of document content analysis of planning board minutes centered on the arts district policy drafts as well as the review of a survey analysis conducted by the city on local artists to judge their thoughts on creating an arts district. This will be historical documentation analysis starting from the initial formal conversations with city councilors about the arts district beginning in 1997 to the present. I will also be conducting open-ended interviews with policy makers in the city, local artists, members of the chamber of commerce, realtors, and residents of the district to gain a better understanding of why planning for this district was either side-tracked or inadequate.

(reprinted with permission from David Fields, Master Planning Director, Arlington Massachussetts)