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The Art of the Commute*



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“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.” Plato (Watson and Ware, 1991)

We live in a world in which travel to distant lands can occur with ease, super connectivity is an expectation and centuries worth of knowledge is accessible with a few strokes of the keyboard. However, amidst the omnipresence of globalization, there is a relatively new movement in the United States, creative placemaking, which encourages communities to recognize and purposefully employ art (music, dance, theater, visual arts, creative writing) to bolster individual and communal identity and culture in specific spaces and locations. Creative placemaking is currently a popular topic in the field of urban planning and several universities offer courses concerning the topic. This essay explores the relationship between creative placemaking and transportation hubs and, more specifically, focuses on how such efforts can be evaluated.

Transportation hubs are places where passengers and cargo are exchanged and they usually also act as ports of entry to large cities. Hubs include train and subway stations, bus terminals, ferry ports, and airports. Many major transportation hubs (i.e., the New York Port Authority Bus Station Terminal, Washington D.C.’s Union Station and Chicago’s Union Station) were originally designed foremost for safe and efficient movement of travelers, but many now are overcrowded and appear inhospitable.

The U.S. National Endowment for the Arts coined the term creative placemaking in 2010 and defined it as occurring when,

Partners from public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired (Markusen and Gadwa, 2010).

Transportation for America, an industry advocacy association, has argued that society should be harnessing the power of the arts to encourage human interaction and engagement within transportation-related spaces used by the public, “Done right, creative placemaking can lead to both a better process and a better product. The end results are streets, sidewalks, and public spaces that welcome us, inspire us, and move us in every sense of that word” (Transportation for America, 2019). According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018, the average American household spends more on transportation than food, healthcare, entertainment or clothing (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019). In fact, transportation expenses are second only to housing in most family budgets. Given its pervasive importance, transportation provides an opportunity, at least partially, to address the livability concerns of many communities, especially for residents who rely on public transportation. Art Place America, a nonprofit organization that argues that arts and culture should be a core component of community planning, completed a creative placemaking field scan in 2017 and suggested that transportation systems designed in the past had been hierarchic and technically focused, with negative consequences for major portions of the nation’s residents,

Transportation systems can and should be a powerful tool to help people access opportunity, drive economic development, improve health and safety, and build the civic and social capital that binds communities together. Unfortunately, a historic, top-down, technocratic approach to transportation planning and design has failed to achieve these goals for everyone. This has resulted in transportation systems that do not equitably serve communities of color, low-income people, and other disadvantaged communities (Art Place America, 2019).

As noted above, transit hub design has suffered from many of these same flaws. More, their function and means-focused character has often amplified those difficulties exponentially, and mitigated their ability to be a catalyst for joint community-transit development. But while this situation is often the case, it need not always be so, as the Transit Cooperative Research Program, a federally funded technical group, has suggested,

Transportation strongly impacts community livability concerns. Many communities end up with transportation networks that simply pass through them, without responding to community needs, relating to their surroundings, or concerns (Transit Cooperative Research Program, 2019).

Although city planners have recently argued that transit hubs should incorporate creative placemaking strategies, an even bigger challenge than pursuing that approach when designing or redesigning a project is understanding how to measure or evaluate the success of such efforts (Rose, Daniel and Liu, 2017).  In today’s neoliberal context, art projects are expected to demonstrate why, how, and to what degree they constitute a helpful development approach in efforts to create a more harmonious, enjoyable and equitable society. Myerscough et al. (1998) performed one of the earliest studies on creative placemaking, even before the term was officially coined, and linked outcome measures purely to the economic importance of the arts. Their evaluation did so by limiting the outcomes of arts venues, including festivals, theater districts and concert halls to their economic returns on investment. These investigators found that the arts significantly affected the prosperity of an area by creating training opportunities, establishing jobs, attracting arts-related spending and increasing the attractiveness of an area for other businesses and residents.            

However, arts projects should not be evaluated solely on the basis of their economic outcomes. Instead, such evaluations and analyses should also consider whether, how and to what extent specific art forms result in user or participant satisfaction or afford broader accessibility to otherwise underrepresented or vulnerable residents.

Establishing clear cause and effect for arts initiatives, however, can be challenging and this is surely true for capturing the purport of creative placemaking for transit hubs as well, especially when one considers that the sample group is comprised of commuters rushing to or from work. Some arts nonprofit organizations are turning towards a theory of change approach to help define the path from identifying a community need or needs to evaluating the impacts of specific arts interventions in transportation hubs. Others have used logic models to develop an outcomes framework that specifies program planning and implementation activities. Regardless of the approach taken, it is essential to select outcome indicators that closely reflect the aims and objectives of the arts initiative being undertaken and this almost always likely requires that analysts consider more than simple economic outputs.

One arts organization that is facing this challenge and actively seeking to promote the benefits of a creative placemaking strategy, is Sing for Hope (SFH). SFH is a New York City-based nonprofit organization founded in 2006 that encourages interactions between artists and residents by making the arts more accessible to the public. Sing for Hope has three main programmatic areas; Healing Arts, Education and SFH Pianos. The Healing Arts is a volunteer-based program that brings the arts directly into healthcare settings (hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, treatment centers) and works directly with those facilities’ therapists to create an uplifting environment focused on reducing pain, enhancing healing environments, helping patients express emotions and supporting caregiver wellness. The Education program offers a variety of arts experiences to students of all ages, including providing free arts-based curriculum to deserving schools and to the Youth Corps leadership training program. In addition, Sing for Hope helps to sponsor NYC Arts Week at locations throughout the city. SFH is perhaps best known for its Pianos program. Every year, the nonprofit purchases 50 pianos, has local artists from the five boroughs decorate them, places them in locations selected to offer public access and thereafter donate the instruments to education and healthcare facilities.   

 A new SFH creative placemaking initiative, the Quality of Commute (QOC) program, promotes arts engagement, cultural sharing and human interaction. The arts organization currently has a piano located in a major NYC transit hub, the New York Port Authority Bus Station Terminal, as part of the QOC program. The Port Authority initiative primarily affects commuters, travelers, and visitors, as well as a much smaller group of individuals consisting of nearby community groups, which are invited to attend regularly scheduled performances. The Authority’s piano is available for use by residents and any one passing by may play it. Each time I have walked past this SFH Piano in recent weeks, for example, there have typically been 5-10 commuters near it, listening to whoever is at the keyboard.  

The Quality of Commute program is having a clear impact on the social interaction and mood of those who take the time to stop and experience it. However, when reviewing the SFH’s metrics for evaluating the success of this program, I was surprised to learn that the measures now being used for the purpose were predicated primarily on observations. That is, the nonprofit’s staff members currently guestimate how many people walk by during or after a performance and could thus potentially have been exposed to this form of community art.  While observation is helpful, I propose that SFH add a quantitative/qualitative evaluation to its piano project by asking audiences and passersby to complete a Short Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale (SWEMWBS) and placemaking questionnaire, in order to collect data on how they perceive human-piano interaction affecting their mental health as well as their connectedness to the transit hub. Measuring the outcomes of creative placemaking efforts at transit hubs in this way, in addition to doing so via field observation, would fill a gap in the urban planning literature.

As the quotation from Plato above illustrates, art is an often intangible, yet intrinsic need. Past research has demonstrated how the arts have positively influenced the education and medical fields. The question today is whether the arts can do the same when integrated into planning for transit hubs.

*The author currently works as the Director of Operations at the nonprofit highlighted here, Sing for Hope. He is helping to develop metrics for that organization’s Quality of Commute program.


Art Place America. (2019). “Transportation for America. Arts, Culture and Transportation A Creative Placemaking Field Scan 2017.”, Accessed October 23, 2019.

Markusen, Ann and Anne Gadwa. (2010). “Creative Placemaking.”, Accessed October 23, 2019.

Myerscough, J; K. Manton; R. Towse and R. Vaughan. (1998). The Economic Importance of the arts in Glasgow, London: Policy Studies Institute.

Rose, Kalima, Milly Hawk Daniel and Jeremy Liu. (2017). “Infrastructure and Community Investment: Creating Vibrant Foundations,” in Creating Change through Arts, Culture and Equitable Development: A Policy and Practice Primer,,  Accessed October 27, 2019.

Transit Cooperative Research Program. (2019). The Role of Transit in Creating Livable Metropolitan Communities,”, Accessed October 24, 2019.

Transportation for America. (2019).  What is Creative Placemaking?”, Accessed October 23, 2019.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2019).

Accessed October 23, 2019.

Watson, D; Ware, H.  (1991). Wordsworth Dictionary of Musical Quotations. Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.

Lehi Dowell

Lehi Dowell is a third-year Ph.D. student in Planning, Governance, and Globalization at the School of Public and International Affairs. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from the University of La Verne and a master’s degree in Hospitality & Tourism Management from Florida International University. He has worked extensively over the past few years to incorporate cross campus and interdisciplinary activities at Virginia Tech by taking leadership positions in organizations such as the Graduate Student Assembly, the Community Change Collaborative, and the Diversity Scholar program. Lehi also has a strong nonprofit background. His master’s degree involved an independent project and an oral defense on the topic of increased tourism to Cuba if travel sanctions from the United States were lifted. Having worked ten years in hospitality operations management and several years in nonprofit administration, he has been exposed to issues concerning economic growth, sustainable development, and community engagement on both local and international levels. This firsthand knowledge is instrumental in supplementing research endeavors and bridging the gap between the real world (applied science) and academia (theoretical science). He prefers to investigate real life quandaries to which he can help find feasible solutions for, solutions that are readily available and accessible to the general population at large.

Publication Date

November 1, 2019