Smart Growth America and Transportation for America welcome a new director of arts & culture

Smart Growth America — along with our signature transportation program Transportation for America — is pleased to announce today the hiring of Ben Stone as director of arts and culture, a new position designed to lead the organization’s broad efforts to help communities across the country better integrate arts, culture, and creative placemaking into neighborhood revitalization, equitable development, and transportation planning efforts.

stoneFor the past four-and-a-half years, Ben has served as the executive director of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, a dynamic cultural district in Baltimore, MD. In that role, he helped make Station North a place that supports artists and attracts visitors and residents alike to the lively, creative community surrounding Baltimore’s Penn Station. (Station North was profiled briefly in Transportation for America’s recent online guidebook to creative placemaking, The Scenic Route.)

“Including the arts in neighborhood development can create well-rounded places that are powerful catalysts for smart, new, inclusive growth,” said Geoff Anderson, president and CEO of Smart Growth America. “Ben has an incredible wealth of experience in this field, and we look forward to helping him share it with the local elected leaders, real estate developers, and advocates making neighborhoods great across the country.”

“We’re thrilled to bring someone of Ben’s caliber on board to help lead this emerging area of integrating local arts and culture to produce better projects and places through a better process,” said James Corless, director of Transportation for America. “He’s a respected expert and leader who has on-the-ground experience with creative placemaking, an emerging approach to planning and building transportation projects that taps local culture to produce better projects through a better process.”

Ben took a few minutes to talk with us about his experiences in Baltimore, the challenges he is eager to take on at Smart Growth America, and what he’s most looking forward to as he works to integrate arts and culture into the process of building and supporting the neighborhoods we all call home.

Station North was profiled briefly in The Scenic Route, our recent online guide to creative placemaking in transportation. Can you tell us just a little more about the district and it’s purpose for the neighborhood?
The Station North Arts & Entertainment District, one of the nation’s first state-designated arts districts, encompasses parts of three central Baltimore neighborhoods. Station North’s designation provides some local and state tax incentives for artists, and the Station North nonprofit produces award-winning public art projects and provides thought-provoking programming. This work helps us forge strong supportive relationships with local artists, designers, residents, businesses, and institutions to guide development in a section of Baltimore that had formerly been characterized by vacant buildings, blight, unemployment, and a weak real estate market, in addition to a nascent arts scene.

Why should people involved in planning, smart growth, neighborhood revitalization, transportation, or the like be thinking about arts and culture?
Because people involved in arts and culture are certainly thinking about planning, smart growth, neighborhood revitalization, and transportation — disciplines well outside of the traditional boundaries of the art world — with great success, often in situations where more traditional approaches have failed. Civic-minded artists from Rick Lowe and Mierle Laderman Ukeles to Theaster Gates and Gaia have creatively intervened in urban processes; planners have much to learn from these and other similar artists.

We say in our creative placemaking guide that a great starting point for any proposed transportation project is the question, “How can the distinctiveness of this place and the people in it contribute to the success of this transportation project and the community around it?” Does that seem like the right place to start?
This is the approach that originally drew me to the field of planning. [Note: Ben Stone’s background is in planning. -Ed.] I’ve always found that using projects to highlight the distinctiveness of a place makes both local stakeholders and visitors more excited about and connected to the final outcome. I’ve also always been skeptical of codified approaches to planning and transportation projects that tend to homogenize public spaces across the country. The arts are a perfect antidote to this phenomenon.

For more skeptical business-minded folks or elected officials, how can investing time and money into arts and culture drive smart, inclusive economic development in a city? What’s the payoff?
It has been difficult to prove a causal relationship between the arts and neighborhood development; however, I can’t think of any neighborhoods or cities that are models of smart, inclusive development that don’t prominently feature the arts. If skeptical business leaders and elected officials speak to their successful peers, they’re guaranteed to learn that the arts contributed to their success.
Investing time and money into the arts and culture has an economic payoff, but it also has an important civic function: it builds resilience in communities. Research shows that demographically diverse neighborhoods are more civically healthy than homogenous neighborhoods. The arts and culture help build bridges between diverse neighbors, increasing participation in everything from voting and volunteering to work on community projects. To put it simply, the arts and culture help neighbors get to know and trust one another.

Finally, artists are some of the most (appropriately) skeptical people I know. The skepticism of business leaders, elected officials, and artists might come from different places, but these groups could learn so much from each other about asking difficult questions.

What’s one lesson or story that you’ll walk away with from your time in Baltimore that you’d most want to share with others around the country?
My experience in Station North has taught me that one does not need to sacrifice artistic quality to produce meaningful public art work, and that the benefits of quality art are far richer than merely beautification.

While running Station North’s international street art festival, Open Walls Baltimore, I quickly learned that, despite seeking approval for proposed art at community association meetings, some residents didn’t like the art after the muralists started painting. Yet, this helped us draw out disengaged residents who had skipped the community association meetings but weren’t shy about complaining about the mural going up across the street from their house. We tackled this head-on, inviting residents to speak with the artists, and encouraging them to attend community association meetings in the future.

After surveying residents, we learned that they unanimously felt more connected to their neighborhood after Open Walls Baltimore’s completion — whether they liked or disliked the final murals.
What led you to this new opportunity? Why the shift to a national vantage point for supporting arts and culture as powerful tools to help create better, more lovable (and loved) places?
I’ve loved helping to transform Station North into a national model for arts districts over the past five years. Station North is now attracting quality, arts-focused development, while continuing to expand the quantity of market rate and affordable residential housing, as well as the the overall number of artists in the district.

I’ve learned so much about community building from my Station North co-conspirators. I can’t wait to share these lessons with, and to learn new lessons from, communities around the country.