The following is by C. W. Norris-Brown, PhD, January 2015.

“In my own philanthropy and business endeavors, I have seen the critical role that the arts play in stimulating creativity and in developing vital communities….the arts have a crucial impact on our economy and are an important catalyst for learning, discovery, and achievement in our country.” – Paul G. Allen, Co-Founder, Microsoft

 Economic Sustainability

The book Sustainable Communities (see References) is a summary of how Burlington has focused on a durable economy through an “innovative economic agenda” that revolves around locally-owned small businesses and sustainable development initiatives. These initiatives revolve around economic development policy principles in which sustainability is the catch word.

In this context, sustainability means protecting and preserving environmental resources as much as it means establishing an economic model that encourages self-sufficiency as a means to retain jobs and optimize community well being (p 18-19). The goal of community-directed economic development should be to nurture sustainable development with a special focus on the enterprise community, neighborhood activity centers, and to find ways to strengthen a mixed economy overall, maximizing existing businesses and jobs, in a way that supports locally-owned and controlled small businesses appropriate to the nature of the neighborhoods (pp 10-11).

For our present purposes, the book also mentions how a “cultural economy sector” can contribute to the “creation of a more durable economy.” For the artists of the South End Arts District (SEAD), the discussion needs to be more than creating beauty-garden pockets or other decorative art. It needs to focus on how to not only retain the creative energy of the SEAD as it is now. It needs to focus on how to build further on it.

Promoting sustainable economic development in the Pine Street corridor is basic to the creative innovation and incubation that a thriving economy rests on today, and the working artists and artisans should be at the core of the SEAD economy.

Innovation, Incubation, Creativity

On the one hand, the role the artists and artisans of the SEAD play are part of the bigger picture of the place innovation and creativity occupy in the life of a community. One report on innovation and creativity (“Steps to an Ecology …” see References) notes that it is becoming increasingly important to encourage various levels of cooperation across a number of work areas as the basic motive force for progress. Among other things it notes that more and more collaborative “places for meeting and making are appearing in local communities. DIY (Do It Yourself) and DIWO (Do It With Others) organizations known as Fab Labs, hacker spaces, skunk works, and maker places provide shared access to knowledge and technologies. Such places can … support decentralized, flat, peer-to-peer, and community-focused organizational models. These places can also serve as incubation centers and showcases for technology and manufacturing companies … ‘Thinking with things’ can bring people together and provide powerful ground for learning scientific and artistic principles” (p 10).

Similarly, there is a surge in addressing generally how important art is for education and cognitive development. These are not new observations. But as PlanBTV South End moves forward, it is important to note that Burlington is poised to take the lead not only in protecting the artists and artisans spaces of the SEAD. It is poised to raise the standards for how to connect the needs to maintain a “maker” economy with a living community that is not only viably based on creative/innovation small business models, but is also premised on the need to maintain the connection between arts and innovation that is at the forefront of novel national priorities.

“We need people who think with the creative side of their brains—people who have played in a band, who have painted…it enhances symbiotic thinking capabilities, not always thinking in the same paradigm, learning how to kick-start a new idea, or how to get a job done better, less expensively.” – Annette Byrd, GlaxoSmithKline

 Foundation of Creative Progress

On the other hand, PlanBTV South End can provide the guidelines for the role the artists and artisans of the SEAD can play as part of a “manufacturing renaissance” in the USA. “Gerard (President USW) said you don’t create real wealth by flipping coupons or hamburgers, you create it by taking real things and turning them into things of value” (http://www.aflcio.org/Blog/Economy/Revive-Manufacturing-with-Green-Jobs).

The SEAD consists of “makers” of many sorts from those who produce paintings to those who make things from metal, glass, and wood. Theirs is a hands-on creativity that is just as necessary to a sustainable economy as are the more trendy digital businesses;

“We should think about workforce development as a fundamental part of America’s infrastructure, as basic to our economy and our communities as building roads and bridges. In fact, workforce development is a bridge—a bridge to our future, for our kids and for today’s workers, and to the jobs and the technology of today and tomorrow” (AFL-CIO ibid).

Vermont Job Corps and other organizations modeled on the French Compangnons du Devoir have already connected with makers of the SEAD, and this potential job training and experimental activity should only increase. The whole range of potential for the SEAD includes all levels of innovation and incubator spaces that are an integral component of what is already moving forward in the South End such as exemplified in BCA’s Generator Space and in Champlain College’s Miller Complex. If allowed not only to prosper, but also given the incentive to grow, the maker economy of SEAD could come to play a major new role in Burlington’s sustainable economy. It could also set a new national standard to creative place making that gets at the very heart of what makes the SEAD tick.

To think along these lines, let’s follow Alice and enter through the looking glass and let visions float in our minds. The “looking glass” is where we stand. What is beyond could be a place that combines the energy and expertise of the artists and artisans who have built the SEAD with the vision of a more powerful makers complex. Where can this exercise take us?

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Albert Einstein. Quoted in interview by G.S. Viereck , October 26,1929. Reprinted in “Glimpses of the Great”(1930)

Concept of maker space complex

Envision an arts complex built up around the hard-working artists and artisans who have formed the SEAD — one that combines cutting edge green design in architecture with an innovative approach to the landscape.

As an anchor for the artists and artisans of the SEAD, an expanded “makers complex” would provide new work spaces for makers; and, since, any prerequisite for the maintenance of the SEAD as such will require establishing means for the artists and artisans to maintain their rental spaces, by innovative funding mechanisms, provide a means to maintain other affordable maker spaces in the SEAD.

The architecture could consist of one or several buildings that, like the Pittsburgh Glass Center (which is LEED gold certified), exhibit innovative solutions to energy, water and air circulation. Although PGC is a “hot glass” center, it sets a standard in which different spaces could be incorporated into a larger context, combining artisanal work using high levels of energy, etc (like a forge, a hot glass works, ceramics, woodworking, etc.). Any such new structures should set new Burlington standards for per cent improvement over code, and include novel approaches to green roofs, rainwater gardens, inside-outside space easily accessible by the public, etc. As part of the larger landscape, they could be incorporated into the storm water system (re-use, recycle, cleanse water, etc.), and be folded into a walkable landscape of outdoor sculpture gardens (as possible extensions of artisan working spaces), walkways along the Barge Canal, providing space for block community event spaces, etc.

Like innovator spaces and sustainable local economy, this fits in well with Burlington’s overall strategy of energy conservation from alternative fuels to energy efficiency (Sustainable Communities 151, 154, 157).

Some of the physical benefits of following this idea include its ability to help Burlington’s efforts to address brownfield redevelopment in an innovative way. With the meeting of minds that think outside the box, stormwater could be recycled through the actual structure or at least become part of a working landscape in which the structures participate, building on the actual history of the Barge Canal area. This would definitely put Burlington at the center of national attention.

Towards an Equitable Community

This core could serve as a catalyst for sustainable, innovative, and long-lasting growth by providing common people with the means to build sustainable futures. As such, this core idea could serve  as a catalyst for locally sustainable, innovative, and long-lasting growth. Not only would it provide the core for continued artist and artisan work spaces. It would also provide the core around which other uses would focus that could include bike and walk paths along the Barge Canal, open spaces for farmers markets, art shows, and the Art Hop, plus outdoor cafes that merge with work and exhibition spaces, green roofs, rain gardens, storm water recycling, and energy conservation.

The complex itself would support cross-fertilization between working artists and artisans and students along the lines of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, and, considering how important it could be for the type of job creation needed by a segment of the community, its educational value would increase manyfold along with its potential for innovation and small-business maker work spaces. The idea of this core would solidify the creative foundation that will ensure that this form of a working community cooperative union provides work strategies that are more promising for both artists and community than tenured teaching jobs or art-market success or an economy that is not based on local control. Being able to remain in one’s local space is more viable and responsible than being dependent on outside forces for one’s career development. It is a true incubator space that is fully grounded in the local economy.

Communities that provide affordable housing and work spaces are more than just the physical space. It is a working community that is also built around open spaces, community centers (including art and performance spaces), educational facilities, and is friendly towards walkable spaces, bikes and public transportation. This is an affordable community in which the spaces are defined by those who will use it. Affordability and equitability go hand in hand and initiate collaborations across social boundaries. A working community builds bridges across communities of interest only to the extent that affordable housing extends beyond the basic criteria and includes the picture of a larger community.

Through the Looking Glass

Does Burlington have the visionaries to make this work? Can we harness the resources needed to make it reality? It may be the best way to preserve the SEAD from gentrification that is already beginning to set in. And saving the SEAD, as has been, said, will not only support economy innovation in Burlington. It would put Burlington on a national map of innovation – education centers that are creativity based. It will set a new standard.

Can we bring together a creative organization of resources; partner with private, nonprofit and governmental institutions? Can we invest in the infrastructure needed and focus technical assistance, marketing and recruitment (Sustainable Communities 10-11)?

Can we be creative about financing? Artist coops? Makers’ spaces would be operated on special leases, as well as provide educational and exhibition space, helping (along with gains from energy conservation) to maintain affordable art studios. This would involve the need to establish basic physical requirements for the success of developed “artist and maker spaces,” to establish basic financial conditions to make sure these spaces are economically viable (as rented, leased, educational, coop, non-profit or whatever). As such, these “maker spaces” would provide both the opportunity for a creative-based economy as well as provide the anchor on which all of the arts can be supported.

“Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it’s turning into a sort of mist now, I declare!” — Lewis Carroll Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872 (Penguin Reprint 1998 p 127)

References

Rhonda Phillips, Bruce Seifer, Ed Antczak 2013 Sustainable Communities. Creating a Durable Local Economy, Earthscan Publ., Routledge, NYC.

“Steps to an Ecology of Networked Knowledge and Innovation … a Report on the SEAD [Science, Engineering, Arts and Design — CWN-B] White Papers,” via: http://www.academia.edu/3816275/; and http://sead.viz.tamu.edu/.

https://www.pittsburghglasscenter.org/

http://www.haystack-mtn.org/

http://www.usgbc.org/articles/10-super-rad-leed-public-projects

http://philadelphiacfa.org/blog/2015-better-philadelphia-challenge-winners-announced

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