Drainage basins in Fargo divide communities and spaces. Credit “The Fargo Project.”

Building Resilience Through Community Engagement: The Fargo Project

Editor’s Note: In this guest post, Director of Design Programs at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jason Schupbach discusses one example of Creative Placemaking and the importance of public participation for placemaking and resilience.

Community engagement is an important component of creative placemaking—the practice of using the power of the arts, culture, and creativity to transform and build the character and quality of place to the benefit of the local community—especially for projects focused on building resilience. The Fargo Project in Fargo, ND, is using a participatory public art process to transform and revitalize public infrastructure, and has had great success getting long-term community participation as a result.

Engaging the community in participatory planning process while thinking about the space. Credit: The Fargo Project

The Challenge of Community Engagement

Fargo city planner Nicole Crutchfield and ecological artist Jackie Brookner devised the Fargo Project’s participatory approach. The two met in Fargo after the city invited Jackie to help them think about how to transform a network of disruptive floodwater drainage basins built in response to the flooding of the Red River in 2000into community gathering spaces.

Engaging the community in participatory planning process. Credit: The Fargo Project

Jackie’s and Nicole’s strong partnership laid the foundation for the project’s success. Jackie brought a strong belief in the power of open-ended listening, while Nicole added essential structures and organization. They shared a vision of what the city could learn through a participatory process, and how that would benefit the project. Creating opportunities for residents to shape their physical space was not just a means, but also a priority. To achieve this, they had to overcome the massive scale of the 18-acre project site, home to a complex mix of populations and ethnic groups, in order to develop community investment and thus foster long term participation.

“WeDesign”: Engaging with World Garden Commons

Over 100 community members and local artists attended the “WeDesign” workshop, where Jackie and Nicole piloted a number of engagement strategies. They constructed the workshop around World Garden Commons, a site in dire need of green spaces but with the potential for huge improvements. First, attendees learned about the existing storm water ponds and basic landscaping. This included where the water comes from, where it goes, and how often it inundates the site; and principles including how plants, soil, and water interact.

Next participants went through the “sketch and test” process, a way to design, construct, watch, and respond to others’ ideas in real time. Jackie and Nicole selected it because it is a user-friendly way to inform and educate participants across a wide range of backgrounds: stakeholders, contractors, and neighborhood residents.

Concrete Outcomes, Without the Concrete

These processes had a number of beneficial outcomes. In 2014, the Fargo Park District helped create a cooperative community garden program including a food share program, which relies on this community participation. Local businesses started a community planting project. The city hired a project and construction manager and a community liaison to help connect the community with the design team as they finalized construction plans.

In 2015, Fargo expects to break ground on the demolition of the concrete channel, complete their first round of native prairie seeding, and install a Listening Garden and Overlook, designed by local artists Dwight Mickelson and Joan Vordenburgen and funded by a 2014 ArtPlace America grant.

From the earliest stages, Jackie and Nicole recognized the project as an opportunity to build community. As a testament to their success, Fargo residents continue to expand the project’s vision, pursuing additional means to sustain the project and build resilience in Fargo. Today, the Fargo Project is a national model  of excellence in creative placemaking.

Remembering Jackie Brookner

Jackie Brookner (November 20, 1945 – May 15, 2015) was a pioneering ecological artist, an educator, and an inspiration. For the past five years, she devoted herself wholeheartedly to The Fargo Project. Her work in Fargo, and elsewhere, improved the lives of many and served as a model of creative placemaking work and a creative approach to stormwater management.