CultureBlocks tool showcases city arts and culture, block by block

From dance classes in community centers to plays in community theaters, the presence of arts and culture in city neighborhoods has an undeniably positive effect.

Poor neighborhoods with significant levels of cultural programming, for example, are three times more likely to experience a decline in poverty and less likely to suffer population losses, according to research from Penn’s Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP).

The SIAP has helped develop a free, online geographic information system (GIS) tool called “CultureBlocks” that aggregates arts and culture assets and activities in Philadelphia block by block. Since launching two years ago, CultureBlocks has helped arts groups and community development organizations tailor programming for their communities, and integrate arts and culture in their neighborhoods.

Urban planners, artists, community leaders, and many others have used the tool, which is free and is user-friendly.

After logging on and accepting terms of use, site visitors can explore three different features to visualize a vast amount of arts, cultural, civic, and demographic data in the city.

For instance, if someone wants to find arts venues in Old City, the map will zoom into the area, highlighting it with an orange outline. Data sets can be added, displayed as a set of markers on the map. An “Explore” function pans and zooms around the map. The “Profile” function gives a report of all of the cultural assets, demographics, and resources in a specific neighborhood. The “Match” option finds areas of the city that complement a person’s specific cultural, economic, and demographic search criteria.

Analytics of the website identify sections of the city that meet certain criteria and visualize them on the map; for example, ethnically diverse neighborhoods with high cultural participation can be highlighted. 

SIAP utilizes GIS to measure participation in cultural activities, the impact of the arts on community life, and other demographic data.

“The website has a variety of users, from community groups that want to connect cultural resources in their neighborhoods, to public officials interested in identifying neighborhoods with high and low activity,” says Mark Stern, the Kenneth L.M. Pray Professor of Social Policy and History in the School of Social Policy & Practice and co-director of the Urban Studies Program in the School of Arts & Sciences.

Stern, SIAP’s principal investigator, says CultureBlocks’ unique blend of cultural and socio-economic data makes it particularly useful for studying the impact of the arts on neighborhoods.

“SIAP sees CultureBlocks as an outcome of our research,” he says. “It provides us the opportunity to make our data and our research findings available to a wider audience.”

CultureBlocks is a partnership between SIAP, the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, Philadelphia’s Commerce Department, and The Reinvestment Fund.

Lindsay Tucker So, manager of CultureBlocks and research and policy associate for the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, says that by aggregating existing city, federal, and cultural data, the website visualizes the role that the creative community plays in the city’s economic and neighborhood development.

“SIAP’s research is a watershed moment in the support of culture’s intrinsic impact on community wellbeing,” she says.

Culture Blocks