When I was in college, I had a required statistics-for-liberal-arts-majors class in which one of the textbooks was a little paperback called How to Lie with Statistics, about spinning information or questions to support the conclusion we want. (Yeah, I’m shocked too.) This followed a philosophy class where the prof taught us to “question everything.” These two classes continue to influence my cranky, skeptical self as I move into my senior years. After seeing at least four iterations of placemaking in my working life (New Urbanism, Sense of Place, Cool Cities, and now placemaking), Cranky Susan wonders whether we can identify any real, measurable outcomes from 20+ years of this stuff… and whether that’s actually the point. So today, some thoughts on outcomes.
Almost every project I’ve worked on as a grant writer and grant administrator wants numbers. Same for any publicly-funded program. We are supposed to be able to show outcomes for the dollars we invest. How much contaminated soil was removed? How many jobs were created? How many people were served? Government needs to be accountable, grantors want to know projects were effective, and those are things we can count. What’s harder is to show that the result of a project actually had a broader impact on the community. Is the community better off because this brownfield site is now a bank? Does it improve the quality of life for the residents? It’s even harder for placemaking projects. How can you determine whether 50 (or 500) people per day who walk by a public sculpture were attracted to the area because it has public art, or that they even noticed it, or were moved by the experience of interacting with public art? Or were they just on their way to the dentist? If this kind of data collection and analysis was required for every arts grant, no one would ever apply for another one.
Here is a very long but interesting article on the lack of quantifiable outcomes associated with arts grants, particularly for placemaking. The irreverent author notes that many local officials believe “all we need is to get us some gays and artists and a bike path or two, and our problems will be solved!” (To which I would add a coffee shop and a brew pub.) He compares some efforts toward placemaking to South Park’s Underpants Gnomes: “The project team had a clear idea of what it was putting in to the process and what it hoped to get out of it, but a much vaguer sense of how it was going to get from Phase 1 to Phase 3.” (Phase 2 conversation is another blog post or 20.)
As the author says, “A project could be entirely successful on its own terms but fail to move the needle in a meaningful way in its city or neighborhood. Or it could be caught up in a wave of transformation sweeping the entire community, and wrongly attribute that wave to its own efforts. There’s simply no way for us to tell. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we can’t accomplish the goal of ‘advancing understanding of how creative placemaking strategies can strengthen communities’ without digging more deeply into the causal relationships.”
So if you can’t reliably count the impact of gay, latte-drinking, bike-riding artists… then what? Do we continue to fund arts programs and trees along Main Street if we can’t measure results? Quality of life, attractive communities, a clean environment… do we accept the success of the project on its own terms rather than trying to guess at broader positive impact (or referring to How to Lie With Statistics)?
I say yes. As the saying goes, not everything that counts can be counted. One of government’s jobs is public good. Nonprofits too. Art and bike trails and trees downtown may not be universally viewed as “public goods,” especially when compared to, say, ending homelessness. But sometimes we need to say that a project is worthwhile because it is. We need to care about more than what we are able to count. Sometimes public good can’t be measured in dollars or jobs or parts per million.
As always, thanks for reading!