California Forum

On a mission to make Sacramento a great ‘Place’

Tre Borden poses in the elevator lobby with the art piece “Everything went black” by artist Jose Di Gregorio at the Warehouse Artist Lofts on Wednesday.
Tre Borden poses in the elevator lobby with the art piece “Everything went black” by artist Jose Di Gregorio at the Warehouse Artist Lofts on Wednesday.

First in an occasional series

I am a “placemaker.”

In the parlance of the creative economy, “placemaking” is the process of shaping dynamic public spaces that transform where we reside into where we live. It is a process of molding our physical environment into neighborhoods, public amenities and gathering places that reveal and celebrate the rich character of a community.

Often this manifests as public art installations, temporary event spaces and creative development projects. As we open the discussion about the changing face of Sacramento it is important to understand the terms and begin to put our city in the context of a global movement – a movement that is defined by urban renewal and an embrace of the creative class.

Sacramento, long derided as a bland backwater for government and sprawl, is enjoying an urban renaissance that is putting it on the path to becoming a place – an intentional destination that has as much to do with our cityscape as it does our sense of pride and identity. We are seeing a shift in how people view downtown, and we are attracting interest from national media curious to see how this transition plays out.

Massive renewal projects like the new entertainment sports complex, and its public art program, are certainly the most visible, but other efforts that speak directly to Sacramento’s evolving culture are more grass-roots. Like the arena, these endeavors have the explicit purpose of enlivening areas that are neglected or underutilized.

We can look to events like Good Design market in Del Paso and Gather in Oak Park, created by local production team Unseen Heroes, that have given temporary life to historically underserved communities.

The recent TBD Fest is an amazing example of creating a world-class music and culture festival out of thin air (or dust as the case may be) that unabashedly celebrates our region’s creative offerings in an authentic way. The Rainbow Crosswalk project at the intersection of 20th and K, the heart of Sacramento’s LGBT life, cements the area as a temple of diversity and acknowledges the area’s history for visitors and residents alike. The Warehouse Artist Lofts, which I was fortunate to be the curator for, has repositioned the R Street corridor overnight as a destination for arts and culture, and provided a template for savvy affordable housing projects.

I have spearheaded similar efforts to add vitality to dormant spaces in the region. In 2013 a group of intrepid artists and I converted a former car dealership in Downtown Plaza into a studio, gallery and events space called Exhibit S. A couple of weeks ago we concluded Portal, a project done in collaboration with Quadriga Landscape Architecture. The project activated the Crystal Ice Blocks stretch of R Street with an interactive art/tech installation and provided an experimental programming platform for many community groups, artists and entrepreneurs.

This month local mural team LC Studio Tutto and I began executing Bright Underbelly, a project that will transform the location of the Sunday Farmer’s Market under the W/X Freeway into the region’s largest mural. By establishing partnerships with Caltrans and the city of Sacramento, and supported by private donations from around the region, we aim to highlight Sacramento as the pre-eminent farm-to-fork destination as well as establish a new year-round gathering place in the Southside neighborhood.

These and other efforts are made possible through the commitment of entrepreneurial, typically young and hungry creatives with the buy-in and support of public and private sectors. The experimental nature of these projects often has no clear pathway to implementation, let alone guaranteed results. It takes innovative partnerships to articulate a vision and a creative approach to funding to make them a reality.

The results of these partnerships often exceed expectations, but you can’t help but wonder what would happen if some of these efforts were to receive more resources and attention – resources that are often funneled to more traditional projects that limit public engagement and struggle to express our current culture.

The multimillion-dollar question is how do we bring together young innovators who have the energy, time and motivation to act boldly and the experienced civic and business leaders who can offer the expertise and money to ensure these cultural projects reach their full potential?

I believe both groups have the goal of realizing a compelling, confident and exciting Sacramento. Unfortunately, they often operate in isolation, and this separation hinders opportunities to collaborate and share strategies that would be mutually beneficial. If Sacramento made it a priority to identify, cultivate and support proven young leaders, and connect them to resources that would scale their efforts, the city could quickly achieve positive impacts with this low-risk/high-reward team strategy.

Established organizations in Sacramento are typically led by a demographically narrow slice of the population, so providing more accessible forums is essential if we are to develop ideas that reflect our region and its desires. The most successful examples of placemaking have broad buy-in and resonate with the community.

For example, when I see a project like the proposed “Walk of Stars,” I see an idea that is stale and unimaginative. A design lifted from another community, especially from Los Angeles of all places, is especially tone-deaf for Sacramento.

I also see an outmoded process for how to develop a placemaking project and the missteps that result when plans are developed behind closed doors. Certainly, it is a clear example of a process that needs to change.

A conversation on how to celebrate our region’s heroes that acts as a community attraction is a noble project with a lot of potential. It was a glaring missed opportunity to engage with the broader community of Sacramento and develop a concept that authentically represents our region’s character and does so in a fresh and exciting way.

It demonstrates that we need to bring together an establishment that has considerable resources and expertise and young creatives who could use help in expressing our region’s changing identity. The Bright Underbelly and the Portal are two examples that can provide a template for partnerships and bridge the gap to make Sacramento the “Place” we know it can be.

Tre Borden is a placemaker, artistic consultant, entrepreneur and promoter. Visit his website at

Tre Borden

  • After graduating from Jesuit in 2002, Tre Borden earned an undergraduate degree at Yale University.
  • In 2006, he launched a tailoring company with a friend called SuitsU in New York City.
  • He returned to the region in 2008 and attended UC Davis Graduate School of Management.
  • He got involved in the creative scene in 2012, working with local artist Danny Scheible.

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