Culture and Social Wellbeing in Philadelphia—2012-2014

From 2012 to 2014, SIAP collaborated with Reinvestment Fund, a community development financial institution, to develop multidimensional measures of social wellbeing for Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. The work is part of an international movement to move beyond economic production as the only measure of a society’s welfare and toward a model—called the capabilities approach—based on human development and social justice. The team's approach differs from previous work in several ways: we identify cultural opportunities as an intrinsic dimension of social wellbeing; we examine culture’s potential to influence other aspects of wellbeing; and we focus on neighborhoods rather than region or nation-state.

This research is also part of an international conversation about the value of the arts and moves beyond the debate over intrinsic v. instrumental components of cultural value. The question is no longer whether the arts promote social wellbeing. Rather, opportunities for cultural engagement and creative expression are integral to wellbeing. Just as we’d never talk about wellbeing without considering health, housing, income, security, or social connections, so too we must see cultural and creative opportunities as central to having “the freedom to live a life [people] have reason to value” (Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, 1999). At the same time, a multidimensional tool allows us to document and assess connections between cultural engagement and other aspects of social wellbeing and community vitality. Two research reports (December 2013, August 2014) and a policy brief (October 2014) present the conceptual framework, data and methodology, findings and implications of our study of cultural ecology and social wellbeing in Philadelphia neighborhoods.

During this period, SIAP and Reinvestment Fund worked in partnership with the Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy (OACCE) and Philadelphia Department of Commerce to develop a cultural assets mapping tool for the city. The project was designed to build on local capacity: the cultural data infrastructure developed by SIAP; the web capacity developed by Reinvestment Fund, a robust geospatial platform called PolicyMap; and the City’s interest in the creative economy as a focus of economic development policy. In April 2013 the City of Philadelphia launched a free online mapping tool called CultureBlocks, powered by PolicyMap, a neighborhood-level database of cultural and community assets designed to serve as a networking hub for the cultural community as well as facilitate community and economic development in Philadelphia. (To access CultureBlocks, go to: For a National Endowment for the Arts case study of CultureBlocks, go to:

SIAP views the Philadelphia culture and social wellbeing project—made possible by support from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA Our Town Program) and ArtPlace America—as a milestone in cultural research and its potential contribution to urban and social policy. The CultureBlocks mapping tool opens discussion of the role of culture and the arts in Philadelphia neighborhoods to a broader public. The social wellbeing policy tool provides ideas and evidence that inform that discussion. In 2014 new support by the Surdna Foundation enabled SIAP and Reinvestment Fund to update and refine the Philadelphia indexes and explore the approach in other cities.



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Now showing 1 - 10 of 12
  • Publication
    What do the Arts & Culture Contribute to Urban Life?
    (2013-10-25) Stern, Mark J
    For a panel discussion on "Arts, Culture, and Vibrant Cities: Innovative Roles for Arts and Culture in Growing Inner Cities,” Stern’s talk uses Philadelphia research to highlight the sector’s drive to demonstrate economic vs. social benefits of “creative placemaking” and the consequences for disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. The event was part of “Reimagining Cities: Building Resiliency"—A Full-Day Symposium on Challenges Facing American Cities—held at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and Center for Politics and Governance, University of Texas at Austin, on Friday, October 25, 2013.
  • Publication
    Cultural Ecology, Neighborhood Vitality, and Social Wellbeing—A Philadelphia Project
    (2013-12-01) Stern, Mark J; Seifert, Susan C
    From 2011 to 2013, SIAP with Reinvestment Fund undertook new research that featured development of multidimensional indexes of social wellbeing for the city of Philadelphia. This report presents the results of that collaboration. Chapter 1 documents construction of a neighborhood-based social wellbeing index for the city. Chapter 2 uses the social wellbeing index to analyze patterns of advantage and disadvantage in Philadelphia neighborhoods. Chapter 3 draws on SIAP's historical data to examine changes in Philadelphia's cultural ecology between 1997 and 2012. The summary highlights how the policy tool helps conceptualize and measure culture as a dimension of social wellbeing as well as a contributor to equitable communities.
  • Publication
    "Natural" Cultural Districts and Public Policy
    (2012-06-01) Stern, Mark J; Seifert, Susan C
    This paper reports on research on the development of “natural” cultural districts—clusters of cultural resources that emerge in particular neighborhoods as a bottom-up, unplanned process. It uses data on Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Seattle to answer the following questions: What social and economic benefits are associated with cultural clusters? What are the social mechanisms that connect community benefits to cultural clusters? How do we define “natural” cultural districts? Are there particular neighborhood features that foster formation of these cultural clusters? Can we distinguish particular types of “natural” cultural districts? What kinds of policy interventions are appropriate for different types of districts? The analysis suggests that although we can demonstrate strong connections between the concentration of cultural assets and a wide variety of social benefits, economic spillover tends to be concentrated in places that are already advantaged. Thus, if we pursue strategies that promote creative placemaking purely as a market-based strategy, the outcomes are likely to increase the already growing gap between prosperous and poor residents and between advantaged and disadvantaged parts of the city.
  • Publication
    The Arts and Social Inclusion
    (2011-06-07) Stern, Mark J
    The relationship of civic participation to cultural engagement pulls us into an old controversy regarding intrinsic vs. instrumental values of the arts.In this presentation, Stern cites international scholarship—at the cross-section of welfare economics, philosophy, and social welfare—as a way out of this impasse. The Europeans have explored a multi-dimensional approach to social inclusion vs. social exclusion. He points out that viewing the arts and culture as a dimension of social inclusion changes the kinds of policy questions we ask about the sector. First, we'd focus on access and opportunity to participate in the arts and how these are distributed across the geographic and social landscape. Second, we could ask how cultural inclusion may provide a means of reducing other forms of social exclusion.
  • Publication
    Cultural Research Network (CRN) Overview of CultureBlocks Mapping Tool and Interview With Susan Seifert (SIAP)
    (2013-05-01) Arroyo, Kiley
    This document is the transcript of the Cultural Research Network (CRN) inaugural interview featuring CultureBlocks, Philadelphia's free online mapping tool, posted by Kiley Arroyo (CRN) on May 17, 2013. The focus of Arroyo's interview with Susan Seifert was the SIAP perspective on development of the CultureBlocks tool and insights for other cultural researchers.
  • Publication
    Rethinking Social Impact: "We Can't Talk About Social Well-Being Without the Arts & Culture"
    (2012-05-01) Stern, Mark J
    Mark Stern wrote this blog post as part of Animating Democracy’s “Social Impact and Evaluation Blog Salon” in 2012.
  • Publication
    How does the composition of a cultural district influence its sustainability?
    (2012-11-01) Stern, Mark J; Seifert, Susan C
    This research memo tests out different methods for identifying and classifying cultural clusters and estimating changes in Philadelphia clusters between 1997 and 2010. It concludes that block groups with a complex cultural ecology are more likely to retain their status, while those with a single strength are more likely to suffer a loss of resources (or at least a smaller gain) and a decline in overall position in the citywide cultural sector.
  • Publication
    Beyond Livability (ArtPlace blog)
    (2011-12-01) Stern, Mark J
    Mark Stern wrote this blog post in December 2011 as part of CultureBlocks, the Philadelphia cultural assets mapping project, funded by the NEA’s Our Town Program and ArtPlace America.
  • Publication
    CultureBlocks: Bringing Arts & Culture into the Urban Policy Mix
    (2013-10-01) Stern, Mark J
    This presentation was prepared for the Grantmakers in the Arts 2013 conference on "The NEW Creative Community" held October 6th-9th in Philadelphia. The CultureBlocks panel discussion was organized by Moira Baylson, Deputy Cultural Officer of the Philadelphia Office of Arts Culture and the Creative Economy, with Mark Stern, University of Pennsylvania. Stern's talk focused on use of CultureBlocks--as a data tool, a research tool, and a policy tool--to integrate the arts and culture into urban policy-making.
  • Publication
    Communities, Culture, and Capabilities: Preliminary Results of a Four-City Study
    (2014-08-01) Stern, Mark J; Seifert, Susan C
    This paper reports early findings of a multi-city study of social wellbeing, neighborhood transformation, and the arts that builds on SIAP's Philadelphia research (Cultural Ecology, Neighborhood Vitality, and Social Wellbeing--A Philadelphia Project, Stern and Seifert, December 2013). The team used new data on Philadelphia to investigate ways in which two capabilities—economic wellbeing and social connection—influence four others—social stress, personal health, school effectiveness, and security. The appendix provides preliminary comparative data on four cities under study: Philadelphia, Austin, New York City, and Seattle. The paper was prepared for the Human Development and Capabilities Association September 2014 conference in Athens, Greece on the theme “Human Development in Times of Crisis: Renegotiating Social Justice.”