The Fargo Project - World Garden Commons

Rabanus Park, 4315 18th Ave S, Fargo, ND, 58103, USA

What started this project: 

The origin story of the Fargo Project most frequently starts with visits from the environmental artist Jackie Brookner, who had an interest in both community-based art and stormwater management. Brookner had connected with a Fargo resident and advocate in New York, where they both shared excitement about the opportunities in North Dakota. After a series of exploratory conversations among city officials, Fargo, through planning administrator Nicole Crutchfield, decided to bring Brookner to the town for a visit with local leaders and stakeholders, including the Plains Art Museum, North Dakota State University, and the Spirit Room (a local community center). Fargo had a history of bringing outside experts to the city and was familiar with this kind of outreach. Brookner and her Fargo-based partners quickly found parallel interests and perspectives. While the environmental challenges of the area were important, conversations quickly tracked to questions about the community, about outsides versus belonging, and about celebrating together as a community. These questions became important as they toured water management sites. After the visit, Brookner talked about a potential vision for a project in a stormwater basin: “A central gathering place … will create a sense of place and convey the specific identity and individuality of the Red River and Fargo (looking both back and forward in time), that will facilitate encounters with people and the landscape, and that will also function ecologically to restore habitat and help keep urban stormwater pollution out of the river.”44 The team discussed an intervention at one of the retention basin sites as a first step. Based on her initial and future visits, they narrowed it down to five potential sites and identified an ideal site based on the criteria of access, visibility, and disturbance risks, as well as the preference for a neighborhood that did not already have a place to gather. The site chosen was Rabanus Park, which was dominated by a large retention basin. The neighborhood around the park included many apartment complexes and big-box retail establishments.


This stormwater infrastructure, while effective, had unintended consequences for the community. Many of the pipes and ditches separated neighborhoods and created discontinuity between places. The oldest, and in many occasions largest basins are in low to moderate-income neighborhoods, including areas where Fargo’s Native American and New American population lives (refugees and immigrants from twenty different nations). These important assets worked very well in one way, but not in others, serving to devalue some of the landscape in and around these communities. Retention basins, in their normative state, are not the most attractive features of cities. Leaders in the city government and the community began to recognize that this infrastructure had deleterious effects on the quality of many residents’ lives. It became apparent that any solution to make these spaces more welcoming and more useful would have to rely on creativity and ingenuity and not necessarily more engineering.


The strategies and solutions used to reach these goals were unique in their grassroots and artist-led perspective. This was not an expert-driven project. It attempted, in at times radical ways, to give voice to as many people as possible. The team instituted methods to engage people and groups in deep ways. A steering committee was established from the various community partners. This committee had subcommittee interest groups that could quickly tackle important issues and tasks. Additionally, many of the community groups in the area hadn’t been part of community design processes such as these. The group took extra measures to ensure that everyone who might access the site in the future had contact with Brookner, Crutchfield, or other project leaders. This involved setting up tables outside, canvassing, and other very grassroots coalition-building methods.


The Fargo Project is an ongoing process, and the final vision for the project will unfold over the next several years. Nonetheless, there was an important conceptual shift made by including artists in what the “project” actually was. Instead of seeing a finished public space as the only important outcome, the project team realized that the process of engagement, design, and stewardship was a project unto itself, with its own value and benefits. The World Garden Commons was the first realization of an eventual, more comprehensive master plan. It included new public spaces, artist installations, gardens, and public pathways. It helped to seed ideas about how the basin could be used by the community. A great example of these cultural activities includes the sculptor Dwight Mickelson’s Listening Garden, a sculpture that includes two listening spaces, one, a small alcove where people can listen to sounds of the meadow - frogs, crickets, and birds - and another larger space that can host concerts, theater, and other events. This project also highlighted the importance of collaborative project management within the city. For example, the city’s maintenance staff instituted a no-mow policy for the site, to understand the plant diversity on the site. The city realized that this practice had value and saved money, and has since expanded its use. The city restructured some of its internal management to ensure that projects such as this would have appropriate capacity and oversight. The excitement and potential of The World Garden Commons led them to institute new exploratory processes within everyday practices and projects that could take advantage of these opportunities.