By Tara Smith, HKS Communications Coordinator

Some of the first bright signs of hope in Kennett Square after the shutdown order was issued in March were sidewalk chalk messages—KSQ hearts on State Street, smiley faces, a “thank you” in front of the police station. While the anonymous artists probably wouldn’t have described their work as creative placemaking, these temporary designs long since washed away by rain had a much more lasting impact. In communicating messages of love, hope, and gratitude, they connected on some level with every person who saw them, and changed—if only for a moment—how they thought about these unprecedented circumstances.

At its core, creative placemaking cultivates a sense of place as it engages and connects people through the power of the arts. Around the country, and right here in Kennett Square, there’s been a surge in creative placemaking projects in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. From painted rocks nestling in unlikely places to lawn signs celebrating 2020 graduates, planters full of spring blooms, and rainbow drawings in windows, people are using art to connect and communicate in tangible, and often powerful, ways.

The sidewalks and streets of Kennett Square have been adorned with lots of fun, colorful, and even elaborate chalk art designs in the past weeks. One of these projects, by the Zubrod family on South Union Street, reflected some of these common placemaking themes. Inspired by their church’s suggestion to make chalk art, Luke and Jessica and their three children took to the sidewalk in front of their home with chalk in vibrant colors. “We drew things to get people to act, as well as to encourage people with messages like ‘Just keep swimming,’” Jessica says. “It’s fun to see people smile as they walk by and hopefully to give a spark of joy to brighten their days. We left a pile of chalk with an invitation for people to add their own messages. Some left greetings for our family, signed their own names, or left messages like ‘Wash Your Hands.’” In this time of physical disconnection, Jessica says these responses have been heartwarming.

While many creative placemaking projects are deceptively simple, like any public art they work at a deeper level to connect us to place and to help us re-envision the spaces we inhabit. The underlying purpose of the chalk drawing isn’t to beautify the sidewalk—or even to entertain house-bound kids (or their parents)—but to communicate and connect with those who walk on that sidewalk, to make them smile, hopscotch, or even to look up and around and wonder about the person who created it. Kennett Square has always enjoyed a place-based vitality and resilience, and many residents understand that even more deeply now than they would have a few short months ago.

Larger scale creative placemaking projects are often a result of collaborative partnerships (between nonprofits and municipalities, for example) and bring growth and transformation as they revitalize local economies and build social capital. Examples abound throughout Kennett Square. The iconic bear on Mulberry Street who brings topical and seasonal greetings is one. The PULL (pop-up lending library) stations are another. These are built by residents of all ages, beautifully painted by local artists, and sponsored and maintained by various organizations who have a heart to bring books to children and families in virtually every neighborhood.

An example of creative placemaking during Third Thursday— turning the street into a mini golf course.

The Kennett Square Farmers Market and Third Thursdays, at which people gather and connect in temporarily transformed spaces to support local growers, producers, merchants, and restaurants, listen to music, and enjoy conversation with old friends and new, are also examples of creative placemaking. “At Historic Kennett Square we’re conscious of building that sense of community and social cohesion at our events,” says Historic Kennett Square Main Street Manager Claire Murray. “Our challenge now is to re-imagine these events while following protocols to keep the community safe. That deeper sense of connection and community cohesion is what will carry Kennett Square through these tough times. And the fact that everyone’s missing these community gatherings right now is a testament to the community’s love for these events.” Moving the Farmers Market to the parking area of The Creamery (which is itself a successful creative placemaking project) is an example of a project pivot. “This move enables us to keep everyone safe while supporting local farmers and producers and preserving that vital connection with the people who grow our food,” says Murray. “We look forward to seeing what this new location and collaboration will bring to the Farmers Market community.”

“Creative placemaking projects reflect local values and culture,” says Historic Kennett Square Executive Director Bo Wright. “Kennett Square has an incredible spirit of volunteerism and creative artists, and we look forward to collaborating with artists and community partners as we come back from this crisis with a new appreciation for community and connection. Both small interventions by individuals as well as bigger projects initiated by businesses will be important as we navigate the new post-pandemic normal and find creative ways to preserve the vitality of Kennett Square.”

Next week, part two of this series will discuss creative placemaking ideas from across the country in response to the COVID crisis and suggest a few ideas for Kennett Square.