Urban Planning Masters Research

How can you increase the impact of the arts on a local economy?
Why don’t artists and urban planners talk to each other?

Look for: Finding a problem using quantitative data, then using qualitative data to figure out why the problem is occurring (and finding potential solutions) 

After an undergraduate degree in Anthropology, where I studied the pitfalls of judging music in state-sponsored Irish traditional music competitions, I was drawn to study the economic value of cultural resources.


In my second year as a Masters student in Urban Planning at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, I had an internship with local economic development nonprofit Regional Technology Strategies, Inc., and was immersed in a project to measure the impact of the arts for the North Carolina State Arts Council. After reviewing related studies and metrics techniques, I used a combination of BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) and Dun and Bradstreet databases to determine an economic impact value. This work contributed economic data to the final product "Creative Economy: The Arts Industry in North Carolina" (2007)

However, despite its considerable contribution to the state economy, few state and local economic development strategies focused on the arts. Even with growing interest in creativity and arts districts nationwide, artists and urban planners seemed to be missing opportunities to work together.  

For my Masters Project, I conducted a qualitative study to determine the barriers for artists and planners to working together. I interviewed nearly forty people involved in the arts, arts support, or economic development planning in a rural county near Chapel Hill.


I found that these actors often had predetermined ideas about each other. Planning practitioners often assumed that artists would be poorly organized or not serious businesspeople, while artists thought planning officials were aligned with developers. Racial divides also fragmented groups, and few artistic events or organizations brought African American, Latino, and white artists together.

Further, I found that arts-based development was used to talk about the desire to “bring people together” in a situation of contentious rural gentrification. While the arts can and do bring groups together, arts development discourse can subvert discussions of equity and justice and obscure the injustice of gentrification.

For greater detail on this study, please see my article “Creative Economic Development, Sustainability, and Exclusion in Rural Areas” (2009) in special issue “Creative Cities,” Geographical Review  99(1): 61-80.

What I learned:

  • Creative use of quantitative data can put a value on something whose value is hard to measure
  • Collective projects can mediate between groups that do not communicate well
  • Quantitative data can point to problems
  • Qualitative data can tell us why the problem exists and what to do about it
  • The meaning of work goes far beyond its contribution to an economy