The Long View of Community and Place

NOTE: This article is cross-posted from National Arts Strategies' Creative Community Fellows blog. I am developing a framework for creative dialogue on the future of communities during a fellowship with NAS.

Minneapolis skyline circa 1975. Credit: Minneapolis Photo Collection, Hennepin County Library.

In my work I have been exploring the influence place has on each of us, and the influence over place that we exert individually or in community.

The place that influenced me as I grew up was Minneapolis of the 1980s and 1990s. It was (and still is) a place with great parks, bike paths, tall buildings downtown, streets with towering trees in sidewalk boulevards, and great libraries, schools and museums. Of course, there were also plenty of issues that were not obvious to me as a child: drugs, alcoholism and crime were increasingly serious problems, and heavily concentrated in black, Native American, and immigrant communities.

But how did this place come to be? Large and small decisions made this environment what it was (both good and bad). Many of these decisions were made 50 or 150 years or more before I was born, including:

  • The United States’ decision to colonize the prairie and marginalize Native Americans;
  • The city’s decision to set aside the most beautiful land near lakes and streams for public rather than private use;
  • Lawmakers’ choices in regulating where bars and liquor stores would be concentrated after prohibition ended, and how they would operate;
  • City planners’ choices in standardizing the size of residential lots, the width of sidewalks, the spacing of trees.

Each of these decisions has had long-lasting impact on how individuals relate to the environment, each other, and build community.

When we talk about how our communities are changing, we naturally tend to focus on decisions that affect us most directly: threats to economic opportunity, shifts in race and class demographics, the cost of rent, the kinds of shops and restaurants that open and close. These things are obviously of real concern and have a direct impact on quality of life, but they are also limited to an immediate vision of what is realistic and practical. I think when it comes to choices that will leave a lasting mark on our communities for generations we need to dream bigger.

What are the decisions about place that we can make today that will affect people in 100 or 150 years? Can we imagine who will be living in our communities then? What values, emotions, and psychology would we hope they internalize from the environment we are now building for them? What kinds of fantastic buildings, structures, systems, landscapes will give birth to the people we’d like to be living in our community in the future?

I aim to work with artists of varying disciplines (visual, literary, performance, etc.) to explore these questions in dialogue with communities. I hope to develop an accessible framework for creative exploration of these themes. One that helps ordinary people imagine long-lasting impact of our decisions, and helps us dream big about the future of our communities.

Erik Moe

Truxton Circle, Washington, DC, United States

Digital strategy expert working to strengthen the online work of social impact teams, culture-makers, and nonprofits.