By Cristy Lytal
According to Brettany Shannon, media arts and digital communications are playing increasingly important roles in community development. And as the first Scholar-in-Residence at the Bedrosian Center at the USC Price School of Public Policy, she’s exploring this topic through a variety of media ranging from an edited book to an Instagram database to a podcast.
Shannon spent the first eight years of her life in central New Jersey, and nearby New York City defined her ideal of a city. When her family moved to Atlanta, Shannon was struck by the sprawl and lack of public transit.
“It wasn’t actually until I came to USC that I got the words for what it was that bothered me about Atlanta physically, and in many ways, socially,” she said. “It’s changing now. But when I was growing up, it was, to my mind, still a very problematic place.”
Still fascinated by cities and their dynamics, she earned her undergraduate degrees in sociology and psychology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. After graduation, she spent two years in New York City, where she struggled to find a job that inspired her. She then relocated to San Francisco and became involved in arts fundraising at the opera, the ballet and the Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), located in the South of Market neighborhood.
As she witnessed how SFMOMA contributed to the revival of a vibrant cultural district South of Market, she decided to formally pursue her latent and lifelong fascination with cities. She moved to Los Angeles to earn her Master of Urban Planning degree at the University of Southern California.
“LA is a much more democratic place—democratic with a small ‘d,’ ” she said. “I was making friends with people on the street, which is not something you do San Francisco, because it’s actually quite parochial, and not really in New York, because New York is too busy. But LA has this surprising quality: as long as you’re willing to explore it, you will be surprised and delighted by it.”
She quickly discovered that academia was her true calling, and began studying the role of media arts and digital communications in community development. Her dissertation addressed topics such as how arts organizations contribute to gentrification, how developers rely on social media to promote projects before they’re built, and how communities can use media arts to define themselves.
“Basically, my attitude about everything is that it’s complicated,” she said.
As the Scholar-in-Residence at the USC Price Bedrosian Center, she began producing a podcast called Los Angeles #Hashtags Itself, about how LA organizations use digital and social media for urban planning and development. Her favorite season of the podcast, which she named Los Angeles #Hashtags Herself, focused specifically on the contributions of women at this intersection of digital media and planning.
Complementing her work on the podcast, she also co-edited a book with Laura Tate, a lecturer at Eastern Washington University, called Planning for AuthentiCITIES, which was published in summer 2018. Shannon met Tate when they were both speaking on a panel about authenticity and community development at a conference in Houston. The two continued their conversation and eventually decided to edit a book on the topic.
“What we did was come up with a book that got at the idea of ‘it’s complicated around authenticity,’ ” said Shannon. “Authenticity is a social construct, but people really need it and feel a strong desire for it.”
The book details three ways that authenticity works in community development. The first is called “mooring,” or anchoring a community to the integrity of a location while allowing some degree of flexibility, movement and change. The second is named “performance,” which is the way that people identify something as authentic. The third is dubbed “healing,” or recovering from the wrongs and traumas that a community has suffered in the past. The ensuing collection of essays explores these dynamics, addressing neighborhoods ranging from Vancouver’s Chinatown to Baltimore’s Greektown, and topics ranging from relocation to placemaking.
More recently, Shannon contributed a chapter to the sequel to Companion to Urban Design, edited by USC Price professor Tridib Banerjee and UCLA professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris.
“For it, I created an original database of 800 Instagram posts for a visual and content analysis to study how people perceive their urban spaces, and specifically whether and how they see urban design and public art as distinct from one another,” said Shannon.
She’s also working with USC Price Professor David Sloane and media artist Anne Bray on a project related to the role of LA-based artists in sustaining neighborhoods and helping neighbors find their voices.
In addition to serving as the Bedrosian Center’s Scholar-in-Residence, Shannon has also earned part-time faculty positions at California State University, Northridge, and California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and she’s enjoying every minute.
“I was maybe five weeks into my first semester as a master’s student when I realized that I did not want to stop thinking about planning as an end in terms of an academic trajectory,” she said. “I just always wanted to be on a campus, wanted to be in an intellectual environment, wanted to help teach right away. So it’s a great fit.”