Image by YL168 used with permission.

DC’s Office of Planning has a new strategy for promoting arts, humanities, culture and heritage in the city. The Cultural Plan is a proposal for making the District’s cultural experiences more accessible, enjoyable, and inclusive. The draft of the plan is open for public commentary until February 28.

OP defines culture as "art, dance, music as well as heritage, humanities, spoken word as well as related activities such as food," and notes art can take place both in formal spaces (like theaters) and in informal spaces (like sidewalks). The plan is organized into three parts: empowering cultural creators, improving access to cultural spaces, and enhancing the experience of cultural consumers. About 1,500 artists, entrepreneurs, organizations, and students helped shape it.

The OP decided to draft the plan in 2016 after realizing culture is critical to DC’s economy. Representing 170 nations, the cultural landscape of Washington is diverse and dynamic. The cultural economy makes up $30 billion in annual spending and $1.1 billion in yearly tax revenue, not to mention being directly linked to 156,000 District jobs. For Washington, culture isn’t just a matter of social well-being, but also of economic prosperity.

Community conversations about the cultural plan in October 2016. Image by DC Office of Planning.

The plan has some big revelations related to the Office of Planning, housing, building space, and transportation in DC. Here’s a roundup of the most exciting points:

Cultural spaces will be expanded and more accessible

The plan lays out several zoning and funding initiatives to make cultural space easier to use. These include:

Festival Streets: This program aims to streamline the permit processes for cultural spaces to make them faster and easier, with new flexible permitting for street spaces. This will make it simpler to host large cultural events in DC.

Standardized price charts for rentals of cultural space: These price standardizations would include security and insurance costs, and would make it easier and cheaper to rent cultural spaces for events and projects.

Cultural Facilities Fund: This is an established funding source designed to supplement costs of cultural space, performance space, and living space. Once set up, this fund could make cultural spaces around the city more inclusive and accessible.

Shared parking agreements: The plan mentions encouraging shared parking as a solution for new developments with limited space, rather than having to build parking alongside cultural spaces.

Frequent Expression Zones: OP wants to reserve specific spaces within every commercial zoning district for cultural display. They’ll make it easier for producers to connect with consumers in public places.

Cultural producers will get new resources

Center for Cultural Opportunities: Set up within DC’s Small Business Resource Center, the new Center for Cultural Opportunities would provide digital and physical resources for cultural producers to help them expand their entrepreneurship skills. There's a big emphasis on helping small businesses throughout the document.

A permanent oral history program in partnership with the Digital Library: This is a storytelling initiative where DC communities are encouraged to gather and document cultural perspectives and experiences. 

Arts and Culture Planning position at the OP: The plan proposes setting up a position within the OP to oversee this plan’s execution.

Community conversations about the cultural plan in October 2016. Image by DC Office of Planning.

There’s always room for improvement

Mixed in with good policies, of course, were some areas that could be expanded on. Here are the areas that I'd like to see fleshed out:

Affordable housing: The plan calls for affordable housing, saying "rising real estate costs that affect artists’ abilities to find affordable space in the District" are a significant issue. However, its only proposed solution is public awareness information kits — housing initiatives remained out of the picture for the overall plan. DC is making some positive steps forward in this regard, including preserving Chinatown's historic Wah Luck House with a $39 million investment. Nonetheless, since affordable housing is such a critical issue in the District, there should be more emphasis on this.

Transit: The plan briefly mentions transit as a key issue and suggests art in transit projects, but fails to address how transit is central to cultural mobility in the city.

"Leveraging efforts": For several programs, the plan proposes long-term "leveraging" of current partnerships, assets, or programs with no specific descriptions of the projects. This vague language, used mainly for funding generation and education initiatives, could easily get these projects pushed aside.

Overall, the DC Cultural Plan is a positive start for the OP’s efforts to boost the arts and preserve the District’s cultural heritage. The plan indicates some big wins on perceptions of affordable housing and space accessibility. Remember, you can leave commentary until February 28, 2018.

Erin Phillips is a George Mason University student pursuing a BA in Social Innovation and Enterprise. She hopes to enter a career in non-profit with a focus on sustainability. She is currently an intern for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Outside of her work and academic life, she enjoys exploring new places, writing and reading poetry, spending time outdoors, and streaming podcasts on sustainability.