Research Agendas on Arts, Culture, and Equitable Development

By Axel Santana

With the current unprecedented global pandemic, and a country that’s reached a racial tipping point, racial and economic equity have been brought to the forefront. At the writing of this piece, Covid-19 has taken over 220,000 lives with over 8 million cases in the US alone.  A disproportionate amount of these deaths have been people of color. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people have been killed by the police, prompting hundreds of protests and rallies across the country in the name of Black Lives Matter. The roots and manifestations of these events are the culmination of centuries of racial inequality and injustice, perpetuated by governments, institutions, and systems. These current events are forcing people to realize how deeply white supremacy is embedded in our institutions. We believe this moment will be a catalyst for policy change that centers Black, Indigenous, people of color, and other historically marginalized groups, and we seek to inspire this change through artistic and cultural approaches.

At PolicyLink, we believe arts and culture can activate, amplify, and extend the power and reach of the voices of the one-in-three Americans living in or near poverty, to accelerate equity for themselves and the nation. Through our arts, culture, and equitable development work, we lift up and magnify arts and culture as both a core component and approach to equitable development and movement building. 

It is with that aim that we are crafting an applied research agenda and invitation, composed of four components, that when taken as a group, form a blueprint for generating and translating knowledge about arts, culture, and equitable development in 2020. The goal of the series is to encourage the examination of these various issues and see that the importance of arts and culture strategies is recognized by potential researchers and those who can use that research.

With this agenda, we hope to inspire researchers to pursue a deep dive into these topics. Our intent is for the results of this research to inform and make a strong case for policy change, which we would support and advocate for through our arts, culture, and equitable development work. 

Title Research Need Policy Opportunities
Impact of Arts and Culture on Relocation Assistance Programs Exploring the role of arts and culture in increasing the rate of successful return and the social cohesion of residents who were temporarily displaced due to redevelopment. Inspire HUD and local housing agencies to include arts and culture components into their relocation policies and priorities.

Specific policy opportunity:
The Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act of 1970, as amended, 42 U.S.C. 4601 et seq. (Uniform Act);
Impacts of Arts and Culture Strategies on Streetscape Design & Mobility Projects Explore, through recent innovative cases, the impact of a community’s creative and cultural approaches to street design standards on mobility and safety. Inspire the establishment of a designated funding source to support cities and localities to develop and implement their own street design standards to be responsive to their community’s unique needs.

Specific policy opportunity:
Expand American Association of State and Highway Transportation Officials’ Green Book standards to be more flexible, equitable, and responsive to community needs.
Equitable Business Improvement Districts as a Creative Placemaking Model Explore how “value capture strategies” can be used to make urban creative placemaking projects such as those led by Business Improvement Districts more equitable. Inspire cities to make community engagement processes and governance structures more equitable and inclusive in the design and approval of Business Improvement Districts.

Specific policy opportunity:
City council ordinances should include equitable community engagement and governance structure provisions.
Immigrant Food Systems and Moving Toward a Deeper Understanding of Healthy and Local Food Explore the impact of immigrant food agents in low-income communities of color and identify their unique characteristics, challenges, and strengths, which may not be currently served by existing healthy food access and food system programs. Inspire institutions to create a deeper and more nuanced understanding of who is driving community change using food as a focal point and the impacts of these systems including beyond economic and nutrition implications.

Specific policy opportunity:
The development of a revised Nutrition Environment Measures Study for retail food stores could inform the eligibility criteria for future healthy food access programs.

To varying degrees, the four components outlined above have implications for the current moment of Covid-19 recovery efforts and challenges to systemic racism. Here is more information about each of the topics:

Impact of Arts and Culture on Relocation Assistance Programs. The US government will be spending trillions of dollars on infrastructure and recovery efforts over the coming years, and the Uniform Relocation Act (URA) will apply to all acquisitions of real property or displacements of persons resulting from federal or federally assisted programs or projects, so it will be critical to monitor how this process impacts the residents displaced, relocated, and returned. The design and implementation of cultural strategies to engage returning residents of a reconstructed public housing development in Seattle provides a starting point for examining these impacts. Through this research, we can see how URA and relocation assistance programs can be improved. We partnered with graduate students from the University of Washington who completed some preliminary research on the relocation assistance agenda topic. If you are interested in reviewing these preliminary findings, please reach out to us. 

Impacts of Arts and Culture on Streetscape Design and Mobility Projects. With the current tension between law enforcement institutions and Black and Brown communities, we are beginning to see a shift in how society is thinking about the role of police and community safety. While advocates are working to #DefundthePolice, we should also be working to reduce interactions with law enforcement to avoid the horrific tragedies with which we’ve become all too familiar. Given that speeding and jaywalking are common reasons that people get stopped in “overpoliced” low-income neighborhoods, maybe it’s time to rethink the way the streets are designed, rather than emphasizing enhanced enforcement. Creating narrower streets with lower speed limits, and expanding transit, pedestrian, and bicycle-friendly infrastructure can make streets safer and more accessible to everyone.  When these changes are made with the active engagement of local artists, designers, and residents, they can be genuinely owned by the community.

Equitable Business Improvement Districts as a Creative Placemaking Model. As cities begin to reopen, businesses in heavily trafficked areas will need to rethink how they operate. From reconfigured retail shopping to making space for socially distanced dining and recreation, there will be new implications for businesses and communities. This calls for a new role for Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), which have been involved in many creative placemaking endeavors for urban commercial corridors. Engaging community residents in meaningful processes to establish and rethink Business Improvement Districts can be a pathway toward more equitable development, especially as restarting jobs and the economy has become an increasingly high priority for cities. A well-crafted BID can empower marginalized communities and center the voices and power of its residents.    

Immigrant Food Systems and Moving Toward a Deeper Understanding of Healthy and Local Food. Long before the pandemic led to limitations in acquiring healthy food, decades of disinvestment resulted in an overabundance of liquor stores and fast-food chains in low-income communities and communities of color and an absence of outlets for healthy food.  After months of sheltering in place and as society considers innovative ways to reopen safely,  ensuring that communities have access to affordable, culturally relevant healthy food options will be a critical component of a safe and equitable recovery. Understanding how communities interact with their food systems through centering not only the nutritional needs but also the cultural values and practices of immigrant workers, businesses, and consumers in this industry will help guide those investments.

White supremacy is so entrenched in the status quo of our society and our institutions that we don’t think to question it. Dismantling white supremacy in America is definitely going to take radical change, but that process can also be complemented by incremental policy changes. Rethinking the way our streets are designed, the way we interact with food systems, the way relocation assistance is approached, and the way business improvement districts are designed can lead to larger changes in how communities of color interact with society. If all of these systems and institutions started to actually value culture and creativity as a driving force, we would eventually live in a radically different society than the one we do now. 

Highlighting and prioritizing the different cultural identities and influences of our communities can generate new ways of thinking and innovative solutions to social, economic, and political challenges. Arts and cultural strategies can help in this process by reimagining society as we wish to see it. Valuing artists and culture bearers as leaders in equity work can have long-lasting implications for the movement. We believe the research that comes out of this agenda will show how important these issues are to rebuilding a more equitable, just, and healthy society.       

Through conversations with our community partners and academics, we’ve identified these opportunities for impact and we believe this research will help make the case for innovative, yet modest changes to existing policies. This is by no means a comprehensive list of research questions, but rather a starting point to begin inquiries into topics that have the potential for impact. We hope this agenda and invitation will inspire research teams to explore how arts and cultural approaches can drive equitable policy change through various sectors. This is a call to harness the current momentum that’s being built around equity and justice to push for research that inspires tangible and progressive policy change.