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Arts Come to the Rescue in Fargo

Photos: Courtesy of Maegin Elshaug, The Fargo Project

What can the arts and culture do for our communities?  A striking answer can be seen in Fargo, North Dakota, where residents came together to show that civic and cultural improvements often go hand-in-hand.

The story begins with the Red River, which runs through Fargo and floods seasonally. To manage this problem, storm water basins were built. Unfortunately, along with being unsightly, the basins physically separate neighborhoods and take up lots of potential public space. During a flood or heavy rainfall, these large basins collect storm water to protect traffic and property. But when they aren’t collecting water, they are just dry empty lots — as big as over a dozen football fields side-by-side. The city of Fargo wanted to make better use of these empty basins and improve the lives of the people living near them.

The community began working with environmental artist Jackie Brookner to solve this problem, and local artists joined forces with residents in a multi-year process of re-imagining how the spaces could be used. These creative techniques “bring a different kind of imagination in,” Brookner says, and allow “more room for surprise and tapping into the whole person.” The residents surrounding one of the basins — including Native Americans, Scandinavian-Americans, and refugees from various African countries — worked alongside planners, engineers, landscape architects and ecologists to improve the spaces. The results were a sculpture, a natural amphitheater, community gardens and festival spaces. Together, they have transformed 18 acres into the “World Garden Commons,” providing a vibrant social, cultural and ecological hub.

While the basin continues to do what it was designed to do — hold storm water during summer rains —  the improvements are undeniable. Along with the space’s enhanced beauty, there’s now better water quality, as well as pathways to connect the neighborhoods. The artists even convinced the city to stop mowing the fields to see what grew. Not only was the natural landscape of native prairie grasses beautiful, but it helped squash invasive species, saving the city money on maintenance and landscaping.

Fargo Planning Director  Nicole Crutchfield sums up the project’s success: “By working with artists and using creative problem-solving, we were able to find solutions that functioned on multiple levels — ecological, spiritual, infrastructural and aesthetic. We picked up on nuances about what the community needed and what worked that we otherwise would have missed if we had approached it using our conventional planning methods.”

The effort was so successful that Fargo has begun to work with community-based artists on other infrastructure projects as well. It believes so strongly in this approach that it has created a workbook to help other communities understand the benefits of working with artists, and how to do it effectively.

How is your city collaborating with artists in unexpected ways? The answer to this question could be the next innovative solution your community needs.

Sarah Westlake, Managing Editor, ArtPlace America, [email protected]

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