Fargo, ND: The Fargo Project

Grassy drainage basin field near rural structures
Photo courtesy of The Fargo Project

How can the arts lead to new ideas for recreating water infrastructure as public space?

Unlike most places in the United States, the City of Fargo and the surrounding Red River Valley are essentially flat. This geography means that when it rains, storm water is more likely to sit in place and cause damage to property and City infrastructure. Because of the Red River Flood of 2000, the City put in a network of drainage basins to absorb excess water. These water collection areas can take up many acres, creating large voids in urban neighborhoods. The city saw an opportunity to turn these areas into a civic asset by using art to create more ecological solutions and to connect residents with these parcels of land and water.


The largest urban area in North Dakota, Fargo has a unique topography. Located at the bottom of what was once a glacial lake, the terrain falls at a rate of one foot over the course of a mile, making an effectively 0% slope. This condition creates perpetual problems with even modest rain, spring snow melt, or flooding from the Red River, which forms the eastern boundary of the town. In 2000, in response to major flooding, the city created a series of 20 drainage basins in order to protect property and infrastructure.


Fargo is undergoing a rapid population growth. Historically, many residents have hailed from Scandinavian and German descent. Many new residents, however, are immigrating from war-torn areas of the world. The immigrant population just recently has passed 10% of the city’s total population, bringing Croatian, Somalian, and Burmese communities, among many others countries, to this Plains city. Fargo also has a large percentage of Native Americans and is home to one of the only city-level Commissions on Human Rights.


When the drainage basins were installed, there was little attention paid to the aesthetic and functional impact they would have on neighborhoods. Though they performed an important role in managing water, these basins were often put in the middle of urban areas, cutting off residents from one another and creating barren and uninviting spaces. Many of these basins are located in neighborhoods that serve immigrant refugee populations and low- to moderate-income families. The city recognized it needed to upgrade the basins into civic spaces that would add value to neighborhoods.


The initial pilot project targeted one of 20 drainage basins. Nicole Crutchfield, a local city planner, partnered with Jackie Brookner, a New York-based environmental artist, to draw up plans to transform the basins into 'neighborhood commons.' The pair wanted to connect residents with Fargo’s unique ecology and to engage residents in the re-design of the basins. They set about to create a participatory public art program which would allow residents to shape the future of these spaces. The process was structured to help the surrounding neighbors understand more about the ecological potential of the basins and to use that understanding as a foundation for creating ideas about how to reinvent the 18-acre detention pond as a public gathering place. As Brookner puts it, they were looking to develop “a positive relationship between citizens and with the watersheds they live in.” These new public spaces could then be used for festivals, gardens, amphitheaters, urban agriculture, or anything else the community identified, while at the same time helping the environment.


Though the vision began as conversations between local city leaders, the artist, and planning staff, the final result was the product of an extensive public engagement process. Throughout the Project, Crutchfield and Brookner viewed their roles as mediators “finding the synergies and connections” between the ideas that others brought to the table. Together, they led a larger team of artists, community members, volunteers, city staff, technical experts, and minority group representatives through project visioning and implementation. The process started with a large advisory group that met once as a whole body. From there, they proceeded with individual meetings and kept everyone updated through emails and phone calls. This initial group helped to provide essential connections to the communities, organizations, and experts needed to address the technical aspects of the project. Given the wide variety of players in the project, communication was key, which Brookner coordinated. As one engineer remembers, “when Jackie talks it’s not just about art— it’s about the big picture and how we’re going to make this all work.”


While planning for the ponds themselves followed a fairly standard master planning process, the team needed to add some procedural innovations because of the high priority they placed on arts-based public engagement. With the artists delegated as community liaisons, the team used innovative tools, including a giant “sandbox model” with props that residents could use to create different earthwork forms. This technique proved very engaging for everyone and useful for those without high English language skills. Organizers also created a “sketch and test” approach, which allowed for an iterative, community-based design vision for the area to emerge—or, as Brookner calls it, “slow design.” By developing small parts of the project at a time with the “sketch and test" approach, plans could be kept open, flexible, and adaptive to changing circumstances.


As the project has not yet been fully implemented, its effects are still emerging. The planning phase has generated a lively civic dialogue about how best to use these public spaces. The goal for the initial phase is to create a step-by-step guide that will help the City of Fargo transform basins in other neighborhoods. This framework will articulate a process, methodology, and template designed to coordinate public engagement. It will also outline how to work with artists and the infrastructure decision-making process, thus serving as a model for other communities on how to incorporate public art and good neighborhood design with public infrastructure projects.


The way in which the project was embraced by other city departments surprised the team. “Other programs, like Public Works, adopted our recommended changes more quickly than we thought they would, and we found that other regulatory agencies were more supportive than they originally given credit to be,” said Crutchfield. “By having an artist communicate the community needs and solutions, I believe their guard came down and the reception to the ideas was more open.” This speed in getting ideas adopted by city departments, however, was matched by other areas of the project that needed more patience than originally anticipated. “The process we follow doesn’t always fit into a traditional 'home base location' within the city’s organization,” said Crutchfield. “Because of this, we needed time to let the project 'breathe' and find partners and develop it’s own ‘gravitational pull’ that helped it move along.” Letting the project evolve through experimentation also allowed spin-off project goals to emerge, such as the new job training and environmental science lab that will help determine seed mixes, erosion control, and sediment as the pilot project moves forward.


The Fargo Project
Project overview on Artist Jackie Brookner's website

Project Report
Overview document created by Artist Jackie Brookner

  • Arts Partnership (non-profit membership organization of area artists),
  • Fargo Public School District
  • West Fargo Public School District
  • Creative Arts Studio at the Plains Art Museum
  • Fargo Park District Plains Art Museum
  • River Keepers
  • North Dakota State University faculty in landscape architecture  (2) and natural resources management.(2)
  • Plains Art Museum, executive director
  • The Arts Partnership, executive director
  • Sprit Room, executive director
  • Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association
  • Housing Authority, executive director
  • River Keepers, executive director
  • Lutheran Social Services, staff member
  • Cali Anicha (community organizer)
  • Karis Thompson (community organizer)

“Instead of using the traditional design-bid-build construction implementation process that’s used for most infrastructure construction we invented our own process to allow for experimentation and for a slower process to adapt to the site and to learn from the collaborators.  This allows for us to approach the project step by step, and allows us to solve one problem at a time.  A lot of the design installation regarding the natural ecological system is new knowledge so the adaptive approach has to have some experimentation integrated into the process. Working in this way also allows more room for the artists to find solutions within the construction process.” - Nichole Crutchfield, project partner