THESIS: Arts and Cultural Districts & Preservation Policy Entry by Cameron Robertson

Arts and cultural districts are a growing phenomenon. Over the last twenty years these districts have gained popularity as development tools. They have served as sources of physical growth and have fostered the redevelopment of urban and rural communities (Borrup 2014: 3). Currently, only thirteen states have state level legislation dedicated to the implementation of arts and cultural districts. The legislation defines these districts as places that should promote and function as community gathering landscapes; characterize regions, cities, and/or neighborhoods; attract artists, businesses, and cultural institutions; promote employment opportunities; and support cultural development (CA § 8758 2015; SC § 60-15-75 2014: 2). Five of the state’s state that arts and cultural districts should encourage the preservation and reuse of historic buildings and in some cases should preserve historic buildings (MA § 58 2010).

These pieces of legislation provide a foundation for conceptualizing arts and cultural districts, however it is essential to understand that these state legislations may not be entirely reflective of districts at the local or neighborhood level. As a result, many neighborhoods and municipalities build off this legislation, adding localized input and policy to reflect their own communities history and character, physical fabric, and socioeconomic issues (Kreyling 2015: 24). Therefore, putting a plan in place at this level requires a fine, distinctive approach that fits the context in which the arts and cultural district will be established. State legislation can be considered, especially if  arts and cultural districts want state assistance and recognition, yet, the regulations can be interpreted broadly.

Implementation Process of Arts and Cultural Districts

Two approaches are used to establish arts and cultural districts: bottom-up and top-down. The first of these methods — which are also known as “natural” or “naturally occurring” districts — are “self-organized, emerge through community-generated action, and are cultivated and reinforced by a diverse range of participants and residents over time” (Borrup 2014: 9). They provide economic opportunities at a neighborhood or municipal level, while still leveraging arts and culture within the regional economy. An example of this type of district is the St. George neighborhood in Staten Island, New York. The second process is driven from the top: private developers and government agencies manage the creation of the arts and cultural district. Government officials, developers, and cultural institutions work to generate an arts and cultural district, with the operation often “invoking a degree of intentionality,” that commonly leads to the revitalization and reinterpretation of a neighborhood, city, or region as a whole (Chapple, Jackson & Martin 2010: 226).  The Dallas Arts District and Lincoln Center are examples of this type of initiative.

Both of these methods are controversial. In 2010, an article was written about the different formats in which arts and cultural districts are created. The article concluded that the benefits received and handed out by formalized arts and cultural districts rarely trickles downs to artists, while informal districts offer little hope of long-term stability for artists (Chapple et. al 2010: 225). Therefore, researching the different ways in which arts and cultural districts are established and their differences could potentially enlighten the field of historic preservation and planning to develop new tools for preservation policy.

Evolution of Historic Preservation

During the twentieth century, the preservation field made a number of transitions. Initially the field was established as a methodological approach to preserving landscapes and individual sites that invoked patriotism and provided a connection between citizens and the nation. However, over time the field moved to preserving the aesthetics and materiality of the post- WWII structures and neighborhoods that were abandoned in the urban centers, in exchange for suburbia. Eventually policies and ordinances used to save and preserve them followed suit (Schwarzer 1994). These mid-century regulations molded the modern preservation field today; this era of preservationists began the process of protecting entire historic neighborhoods and districts (Ryberg 2012: 196). These policies, however, usually had rather narrow viewpoints of what was considered historically significant, both negatively impacting cities and their neighborhoods, such as occurred in Philadelphia with the preservation of the Colonial-era style during the late 1940s.

Still, by the twenty-first century, the field was no longer a single voice, but rather a range of diverse perspectives (Bentel 2004: 47). Presently, the historic preservation field is undergoing another movement that is less focused on the architectural values, but concerns itself with the uses of the structures and neighborhood themselves; the character of the place (Schwarzer 1994; Kinahan et. al 2014). This ‘heritage conservation’ movement serves to provide new preservation tools that are more flexible, allowing the sector to react to rapid changes in cultural and societal views.

Looking at a specific case study, the River North neighborhood in Denver proves itself as a wonderful case. Bordered on its northern edge by I-70, and I-25 to its west. The district, known to many as RiNo, is run by the RiNo Arts District neighborhood organization, whose purpose is to assist with community development and placemaking.

The neighborhood’s built environment is a mixture of vacant lots, autobody shops and warehouses, providing a “relatively blank canvas on which entrepreneurs, planners, and developers can paint a masterpiece” (Schlichter 2014). Art galleries, architecture and design firms, microbreweries, boutiques, and other small and medium businesses line the streets, providing locals and visitors with an array of industries to discover. Currently, the city and the state are becoming more involved with the development of this district, providing a case study to interpret the connection between preservation of these older industrial buildings and the district, when there is constant pressure from private developers and outside stakeholders to further develop the neighborhood.



Bentel, Paul. “Where Do We Draw the Line? Historic Preservation’s Expanding Boundaries.” Future Anterior: Journal of Historic Preservation, History, Theory, and Criticism 1, no. 2 (2004): 42-49. Accessed October 7, 2016. JSTOR.

Borrup, Tom. National Cultural Districts Exchange | Cultural Districts: Bottom-Up and Top-Down Drivers. Report. 2014. Accessed October 1, 2016.

Chapple, Karen, Shannon Jackson, and Anne Martin. “Concentrating Creativity: The Planning of Formal and Informal Arts Districts.” City, Culture and Society, 2010, 225-34. Accessed July 2016. Elsevier.

Kreyling, Christine. “When Arts and Culture Take Center Stage.” Planning, November 2015, 21-26.

Ryberg, Stephanie R. “Historic Preservation’s Urban Renewal Roots: Preservation and Planning in Midcentury Philadelphia.” Journal of Urban History 39, no. 2 (2012): 193-213. Accessed October 23, 2016. doi:10.1177/0096144212440177.

Schlichter, David. “Is River North (RiNo) the Most Up-and-Coming Neighborhood in Denver?” The Good Life Denver. January 29, 2014. Accessed October 26, 2016.

Schwarzer, Mitchell. “Myths of Permanence and Transience in the Discourse on Historic Preservation in the United States.” Journal of Architectural Education (1984-) 48, no. 1 (September 1994): 2-11. Accessed October 7, 2016. doi:10.2307/1425305.



State of California, Federal Code, § 8758 (2015).

State of Massachusetts, Federal Code, § 58 (2010).

State of South Carolina, Federal Code, § 60-15-75 (2014).