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: www.cultureblocks.com/wordpress. For a National Endowment for the Arts case study of CultureBlocks, go to: https://www.arts.gov/exploring-our-town/culture-blocks.)
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.