Formal and Informal Districts

Posted by Greg Handberg, Jul 23, 2013 0 comments

Greg Handberg Greg Handberg

Recently I attended the Americans for the Arts preconference on Cultural Districts. Many presented information on tools and incentives that can be used to establish districts, and it got me thinking more about the difference between informal and formal types of districts.

In my work, I travel to a lot of communities assisting them with real estate development projects in the arts. Through this work I have begun to differentiate between "formal" and "informal" arts districts. I now recognize that almost every project I work on takes place within an "informal" district. Very little of my work takes place in "formal" arts districts. What's the difference? I came away from the preconference thinking about "formal" districts as those that are established through some sort of local or state legislation while "informal" districts are established through an organized branding initiative - typically undertaken at a community (sometimes city) level - but without legislation.

Using this definition, it is clear to me that the number of informal districts is clearly larger than the number of formal districts. I've found huge benefits related to the informal districts that I have encountered. Informal districts help create focus in a neighborhood. This focus can help guide programmatic activities, marketing efforts, and infrastructure investments. Artspace's work focuses on the creation of arts infrastructure (facilities). This work requires investment from both the public and private sectors. Investment is much easier to justify when associated with a well-thought-out district strategy. So what do you think? What type of district is most successful in your eyes?

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