Urban Innovator of the Week: Gregory Peckham

By Nicole Rupersburg

Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer and editor who covers business development & entrepreneurship, arts & culture, and food & travel for national audiences. She is the project editor and lead writer of Urban Innovation Exchange and Creative Exchange.

This profile was originally published by Urban Innovation Exchange in partnership with Meeting of the Minds and Kresge Foundation. For more stories of people changing cities, visit UIXCities.com and follow @UIXCities.
Gregory Peckham of LAND Studio - Photo © Bob Perkoski, www.Perkoski.com

Gregory Peckham of LAND Studio – Photo © Bob Perkoski, www.Perkoski.com

LAND Studio in Cleveland formed in 2011 out of a merger between two other nonprofits, Cleveland Public Art and ParkWorks, two of Cleveland’s leading nonprofits working to enhance public spaces.

At the time Gregory Peckham was the Executive Director of Cleveland Public Art, which worked with artists and designers to create public art projects. The scale of the organization’s work had evolved into more complex urban design projects, while ParkWorks, which had roots in community-scale neighborhood park programming and stewardship, had also broadened its scale into larger-scale park and city planning. The two organizations had frequently worked together over the previous decade creating design-based programs for the city.

Finally, one of their shared funders pointed out that when the two organizations worked together it led to a more complete project, able to offer a full suite of services in creating public spaces through art, green spaces, and design.

“We thought a bigger organization could have a bigger impact,” says Peckham, now Managing Director of LAND Studio. “The idea of how you can evolve an organization to have a bigger influence on its mission and on the city had been a big focus of the previous five years.”

Peckham attended Case Western Reserve University where he earned an MBA with a focus in nonprofit management. His first job out of school was at University Circle Inc. doing community planning for the cultural district in Cleveland. At the time the area was a strong institutional district but it lacked a true neighborhood; their task was to evolve it into a place where people lived 24 hours a day. Peckham was given free rein to create programming that explored how arts and culture fit within community planning, and one of those programs led him to Cleveland Public Art.

“It was placemaking before it was called that,” Peckham says. “We were involving designers in strategic interventions. I ultimately jumped over to work for them when they got a contract to do a large-scale public project for a bus corridor.”

Peckham doesn’t have a background in arts but says he has always been interested in how arts and design, along with community engagement, can have a positive impact on cities.

“I’m really interested in the perspective artists and designers bring to how public design develops,” he says. “That’s one of the incredible things about artists in general; they see the world in a different way. If we can tap into that and bring that in at an early stage, it can help us to engage residents and look at the city in ways that can be disruptive. It’s a different point of view than the traditional planning lens. That is the mechanism for artists to plug into the city planning process and the urban development process.”

People expect to see parks and public spaces, he says, but the minute art is interjected into them it breathes a whole new life into those spaces.

“Art can be this great acupuncture; people will see a place in a way they didn’t see it before. The transformative power of art is more impactful in public spaces where everybody gets exposed to it, helping people see familiar places in unfamiliar ways.”

LAND Studio’s projects range dramatically in scale, from overseeing programming in 10 neighborhood parks to working with local and international graffiti artists in the creation of public art along transit lines to the massive $57 million redevelopment of Public Square, their biggest project to date.

“Public Square is the physical and symbolic center of Cleveland,” Peckham explains. “It was sort of a sleeping giant, a key building block for the continuing redevelopment of downtown.”

This 10-acre park had been bisected by two major roadways and split into four quadrants. Peckham says it was never the high-quality, dynamic urban space that a city needs at the center of it.

Over the last 10 years, LAND Studio (and its previous incarnations) started working to change minds about what Public Square could mean for people. They would close the roads over the weekend for a few hours of programming. They brought in world-renowned landscape architects to re-envision the space. They stimulated people’s imagination of what Public Square could look like and got it on the public’s radar.

“When the business community and civic leadership says, ‘This is an important public space,’ then it’s not just the usual suspects who are advocating for those kinds of things,” Peckham says.

By raising the profile of the space and attracting the attention of the business and civic communities, Public Square became a priority. After 10 years of laying the groundwork for redevelopment, the $57 million project is on track for completion next month.

“Innovation isn’t just about things happening quickly; it takes endurance,” says Peckham. “Public Square is going to be a bold transformation of a really broken part of the city to something that will be an incredible front door to the city.”

They were able to remove one of the roads so the park is now split into two five-acre halves.  One side will serve as more of a green space, with large green lawns and elevated gardens, while the other features more urban hardscape with a large fountain and café. Peckham says they have also raised money for programming and maintenance to make sure the park is a high-performing public space that encourages public use and builds relationships with other arts and culture organizations.

“A city is about these different layers and you have to be able to interact and make changes on these different levels,” he says. “It’s only going to be as good as it is active and maintained. The success of that project is how well people use it.”

He quotes Jane Jacobs, journalist and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, who wrote in response to the push for urban renewal projects that began in 1949, “Designing a dream city is easy; rebuilding a living one takes imagination.” Her words are as true today as they were when she wrote them in 1958.

“What we’re seeing is that competitive cities have to have great public spaces,” he says. “It’s the idea of ‘common ground’ spaces. The world is moving so much faster and cities are becoming so much more diverse; these spaces are a level playing field open to everybody. They’re social spaces, and if they’re well cared for people feel welcomed to them.”

It’s also important that people feel engaged in planning for these spaces and that they are reflections of the way people want to use them, which is why community engagement is such an important factor even in the earliest planning stages.

A public space done well also has a ripple effect on the real estate around it, elevating the commercial value of the surrounding land and leading to both social and economic benefits.

“Each step of the way we’re trying to raise the bar,” says Peckham. “Cleveland is in a different place now than it was five, ten years ago when it comes to appreciation for design. We’re constantly looking at what we can do to raise the bar yet again, what does design do in Cleveland, and how does art fit in the portfolio of how Cleveland becomes stronger city.”

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