Tom Borrup

Reforming City Planning from the Intersection of Art, Activism, and Community

Tom Borrup lives in an apartment in the tower of a vast, converted 1920’s Sears building on East Lake Street in Minneapolis. Over the last decade this urban aerie has provided a home and office for him to write articles and books about planning and placemaking, to consult with cities and nonprofit arts organizations. In it he’s prepared lectures that he later gave in Beijing and Seoul, Bogotá and Bangkok, Hamburg and Nova Scotia. He’s designed and taught courses for the University of Minnesota, Drexel University, and the University of Kentucky. It’s also where he’s done much of the work to complete his PhD in Leadership and Change at Antioch University.

Living in this once-abandoned building—the restoration of which was one of the largest redevelopment projects in Minneapolis history—has given Borrup a front-row view to see and participate in the evolution of Lake Street and of the neighborhoods of Phillips and Powderhorn, of which Lake Street describes the border. He’s seen the forces of gentrification and real estate profiteering threaten to displace neighbors, while at the same time he’s been able to witness and join the community activists, residents, and business owners, largely immigrants and People of Color, who have worked over decades to make this a vibrant and cherished multi-cultural, multi-ethnic community.

Borrup, clad in a yellow hat, sunglasses, and an Antioch t-shirt, stands on a bridge, looking down a river at another arching stone bridge.
Borrup, wearing an Antioch t-shirt, stands on a bridge during a visit to China.

But the night of May 29th, 2020, Borrup and his partner, the actor, director, theatre professor, and activist Harry Waters, Jr., stood at their window and watched as just in their immediate neighborhood a dozen structure fires burned. Small businesses combusted in a paroxysm of frustration and flame. “You could feel the heat on the glass,” says Borrup. “And we’re on the ninth floor.”

This was the third night of protests following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman. That murder had taken place on a streetcorner eight blocks from Borrup’s apartment. In the days since, the senselessness of the murder had inspired the consciences of people across the world to join protests that kicked off a summer of resistance to police brutality. At the same time, the neighborhoods surrounding where Floyd had been killed were deeply transformed, even partially destroyed.

Borrup was perhaps uniquely situated to make sense of what was happening in his corner of Minneapolis. When we talked recently on a video call, he told me how that week he was actually writing an essay to introduce a section he edited in the Routledge Handbook of Placemaking. He ended up directly discussing the events of that week in the essay, which he titled “Colonialism and Conflict in Placemaking.” Without making a value judgment, he discussed the way that physical places can serve as venues for conflict and negotiation and cooperation. He wrote about the businesses lost but also how “[t]he day after the third and most devastating night of fires, with no guarantee there wouldn’t be a fourth and while protests continued, hundreds of residents were joined by hundreds more volunteers from across the city in clean-up efforts.”

Of course, many words have been written about the events that transpired after the murder of George Floyd. But Borrup’s point of view is particular: he writes about urban space with the perspective of his long career working at the intersection of art, activism, and community. These are questions he’s been exploring and thinking about for many decades now.


The Intersection of Print Culture, Activism, and Community

“I published underground newspapers in high school,” says Borrup, explaining how he first came to experience the excitement and pleasure of making something he could put out in the world. His context “was the late ‘60s, early ’70s. That was a thing back then: underground newspapers.” He saved up and bought a small, primitive printing press, and he started soliciting images and writing from friends, his cousins, and other people. It proved a formative experience: “That process of collecting others’ stories and ideas and opinions and publishing them, putting them out there, that’s something I’ve been doing since I was fifteen or fourteen.”

After high school, he left his hometown of East Windsor, Connecticut to attend a small liberal arts school in Vermont, Goddard College. After spending eight years in Vermont, where he also designed for himself a Master of Arts in Communication and Political Science and worked for a year-and-a-half as editor of a small-town weekly newspaper, the Hardwick Gazette, he was hired to be the director of a community media nonprofit associated with the University of Minnesota. He moved to Minneapolis in 1980.

Directing the nonprofit—which was originally called University Community Video but under his leadership changed its name to Intermedia Arts—proved to be a fulfilling and challenging job. It also seemed to build on the skills he built editing and publishing his underground newspapers. Now he found himself running a social documentary training and equipment access center that existed on the periphery of a university campus.

Borrup stands behind a lectern on a stage.
Borrup lecturing in Beijing.

“It was a lot of fun,” says Borrup. From nearly the start, he instituted big changes—first diversifying into electronic arts and then bringing in visual arts, performance arts, and literary arts. As he puts it, “I like to think that in the twenty-two years that I was there, it was really three different organizations.” The whole time, though, he tried to maintain the nonprofit’s core philosophy, which was embodied by what he describes as “that kind of social activism and social change-based pursuits that the video folks were involved in.”

Of course, leading an organization through big changes requires both vision and a sense of politics. “Navigating and bringing people along through changes—it wasn’t always easy,” says Borrup. “I learned a whole lot about change in organizations, as well as being a social change activist and facilitator in the larger community.” Over his twenty-two years as director, he helped build Intermedia Arts into a nationally prominent multidisciplinary, cross‐cultural arts organization that, in the words of the Star Tribune, “provided opportunities for young people in art, video, dance and writing, and was a haven for people of color and LGBT artists.”

Borrup stayed on for 22 years, only stepping down in 2002. “Being responsible for people’s salaries and their well-being in a lot of ways, it’s stressful,” he explains. “A social change nonprofit is always going to be on the edge in some way or another. We mostly had a good time of it, but it’s still work.” Intermedia Arts continued to be a cultural linchpin for over a decade after Borrup left, though in 2017 it had a financial crisis that forced it to lay off its staff, shut its doors, and eventually sell its building.

Since leaving Intermedia Arts, Borrup has been consulting with community­‐based cultural organizations, guiding them as they take leading roles in local revitalization. And he’s also been teaching in universities, giving lectures, and writing books. In 2006 he published the Creative Community Builder’s Handbook, in which he shares much of the knowledge he’s gained through his career while looking at a handful of case studies of communities that have transformed their economic, social, and physical infrastructures through the arts.


Studying Leadership After A Quarter-Century Leading

In 2009, Borrup went back to school, enrolling as a PhD student in Antioch University’s Graduate School in Leadership and Change. He wasn’t there specifically to advance his career, he says. “It was something I was doing for the pure love and enjoyment of learning and being connected with people who were also doing that and were interesting, stimulating in lots of different ways.”

He immediately found a great community of other leaders studying in the same cohort he was in, Cohort 9, which was deeply diverse in many ways. “It was really a wonderful experience to be in this room—in many rooms of course over the three years of residencies—with a pretty wild mix of people, in their professions and where they came from, and have it be so supportive,” says Borrup. “We bonded as a group.”

He found that the program formally taught him all sorts of concepts and lessons that he had had to figure out on his own while directing Intermedia Arts. “I had a lot of experience about making it up as you go,” says Borrup. “That’s how a lot of people do things. But [in the program I] learned the more theoretical basis, the naming of things, and putting it into a greater context that was really helpful.”

Tom Borrup wears a purple, collared shirt with the top button open, grinning, as he stands between two of his advisors, also smiling.
Borrup directly after his dissertation defense, standing between two of his committee members, Dr. Laurien Alexandre and Dr. Jon Wergin.

Toward the end of his PhD studies, Borrup fell in love with the work of researching and writing his dissertation. As he explains it, “Just the work of the dissertation itself, it was just like, Damn, I wish somebody would be paying me to do this, because this is what I love doing.”  Eventually, he finished his dissertation, “Creativity in Urban Placemaking: Horizontal Networks and Social Equity in Three Cultural Districts,” focusing on case studies in Minneapolis, Miami, and Los Angeles. He graduated in 2015.


A Book to Shift a Field’s Priorities

As soon as he was out of school, Borrup enthusiastically launched into his next writing project. He decided to try to collect a lot of his ideas about city planning—a field that he’s not centrally a part of, but that he’s nonetheless been involved with for decades. This led to the book, The Power of Culture in City Planning, published at the end of 2020.

One of Borrup’s main ideas is that “human cultures serve as the equivalent of a computer operating system, enabling and limiting how we do virtually everything we do and yet these cultures are generally invisible.” This applies to the profession of planning because culture’s very invisibility means that it’s often not consciously factored into how physical environments and social structures are fashioned and made to function.

This is particularly pressing in a culture built on a foundation of white supremacy, as in the U.S. “Planners and designers make assumptions about the people they’re planning and building for based on their personal operating system,” explains Borrup. “Because of who has been in power to plan and design the world we live in, we have a world built by and for White men.” But Borrup—himself a white man in a long-term partnership with Waters, Jr., who is Black—thinks that by drawing attention to this and equipping planners with a greater understanding of the power and importance of culture will give them “more tools to interpret and factor cultural differences into plans and designs, [so that] we can move towards a more just and equitable world!”

A large group of students poses for a picture with Borrup in the middle.
Borrup has also led classes in Bogotá, Colombia.

By writing this book Borrup hopes to have an impact on this profession, although he’s tried to avoid stepping on too many toes. He explains that planners are so often cast as the facilitators between complex codes and many competing interests. He doesn’t want to come in as an outsider and lecture them about how to do their jobs. But at the same time, it’s vitally important that planners keep as one of their guides the principle of aesthetic justice: that designed objects and the built environment should account for everybody.

“It’s only something that you can continually work towards,” says Borrup. “And it’s borne out in my work as well, that it’s in the process of trying to do it, and including people in that process, continually trying to accommodate and incorporate in the plans for our communities and public spaces” that Aesthetic Justice is even temporarily achieved.

Planners today don’t often create communities, explains Borrup, “but they’re planning and building out and adapting existing communities.” What he thinks is most important is the question, “Do they do it within a consciousness of culture and different cultures and different people? Or do they just do it for the standard, out-of-the-book plan that they’ve been using since the Conquistadores came from Spain and laid down this colonialist-type platform?”

A screenshot of the Youtube video player.
Borrup livestreams on a Korean Youtube channel.

Ironically, it was only after Borrup had found a publisher and was correcting copy-editor’s marks on the book’s proofs that he realized that he was in some ways under-selling his argument and being too cautious in trying not to offend planners. This was in the summer of 2020, he explains, “after George Floyd and the conversation that was happening in the world. I decided that the term ‘White Supremacy’—which I had avoided using—if I didn’t use it in the book, I would lose credibility.” At that point he couldn’t make big changes to the book, “But I could put the phrase “white supremacy” in [six or seven places], and it fit very easily, because that’s what I was talking about.”

He returned the corrected proofs to his publisher, and his book came into the world last November.


Collaborating to Celebrate and Complicate Place-Making

In the last months of 2020 Borrup didn’t just release his own book, though—he also helped bring the Routledge Handbook of Placemaking into the world. For this book, he served as a section editor under the London-based editor in chief, Cara Courage. This duty involved soliciting work from seven writers in the field and making sure that these pieces fit into a unified whole. For his section, “Practices of Placemaking,” he wrote an introductory essay. This is the essay referenced above about the protests and arson in his neighborhood of Minneapolis following the murder of George Floyd.

The process of editing this book reminded Borrup of nothing more than the underground newspapers he used to print at home as a teenager. He loved the experience of being among the company of other editors along with working with the writers of the chapters he was responsible for. It was his job to make sure they all fit together into a cohesive but diverse whole, and he really liked this work. “Contextualizing their stories of different places and community building work they’ve done and/or observed feels very satisfying, and I love being able to elevate their stories through this massive and, I think, important book.”

Borrup, wearing a visor and a yellow t-shirt, poses next to his partner Harry Waters, Jr., who wears a blue t-shirt.
Borrup and his partner, Harry Waters, Jr.

As for the introductory essay, he wrote it the day after he stood at his window, watching the fires burn in his neighborhood. “It took me a couple days to write it,” he says. “So I very much made reference to what happened there. And it somehow fit in like a glove with that section of the book. What just happened to me, in my community, exemplifies what I was talking about.”

But this isn’t an anomaly for someone who is as deeply embedded in his community and as intellectually engaged with the problems and opportunities it contains as Borrup is. He’s been working at these problems for decades, and he will be for decades to come. As for what’s next, the question isn’t whether he will put together another book—it’s whether he will write it himself, or will he play editor and curator again, bringing forward the voices of others.