By Elisabeth Monaghan
Placemaking. The word has grown in popularity – especially in the Denver metro area and surrounding cities, where people from all over the country are relocating. For established residents of smaller communities, the introduction of newcomers to the area can be challenging. The “transplants” may have discovered the appeal of these charming neighborhoods, but they don’t know much about the history that helped establish these communities. “Placemaking” may seem to some like an overused buzzword, but when placemaking efforts are successful, people feel a greater sense of cultural connection and unity; regardless of how long they have lived in the neighborhood.
In The Scenic Route, which is Transportation for America’s introductory guide to creative placemaking in transportation, offers an explanation of placemaking that more accurately describes placemaking efforts underway in the Lakewood and Edgewater areas:
“In the transportation context, creative placemaking is an approach that deeply engages the arts, culture, and creativity, especially from underrepresented communities, in planning and designing projects so that the resulting communities better reflect and celebrate local culture, heritage and values.”
In the 40 West Arts District and Lakewood/Edgewater areas, creative placemaking has been going on for several years, but in 2015, the 40 West Arts District formally introduced a comprehensive placemaking initiative. Bringing together community members, the West Colfax Business Improvement District, and property owners, the initiative addresses the best way to showcase their community.
Long before there may have been a conscious placemaking effort, RTD created its Art in Transit program. Throughout RTD’s light rail stations, Art in Transit features murals, sculptures, and other traditional and non-traditional works by artists from around the world. According to Nate Currey, senior manager, public relations for RTD, Art in Transit was the brainchild of Brenda Tierney, a former RTD employee, who worked there for just over two decades. Currey explains that by using her foresight and resourcefulness, Tierney single-handedly found a way to budget for art at each of the stations.
“We have no mandate, we have no board guidelines as far as art goes at any of our stations, and we don’t have any official funding sources, so what she did was identify funds available at the end of each project,” said Currey.
According to Currey, Tierney and her staff fought hard to set money aside for public art. When there was contingency money at the end of a project, Tierney would lobby to use it to fund art at that specific station.
The response from the public was so overwhelmingly positive RTD embraced the idea of creating the Art in Transit program. Today, the funding piece remains specific to each station and depends upon how much money is available at the end of that project, but it is a given there will be art of some kind at the station.
While RTD covers the majority of funding for Art in Transit, other community partners will sometimes assist. For example, along the W Line, the City of Lakewood provided $175,000 for art funding, on top of the $375,000 RTD earmarked for the pieces.
While the Art in Transit pieces at each light rail station are visually compelling, it is their backstories that make them especially compelling. As part of the process (and an important component of placemaking), RTD assembles members of the community to participate in judging and selecting which artwork will be placed at their neighborhood stations. Consequently, artists make a point of learning about the communities where their art will be displayed.
Of 916 entries submitted by artists interested in having their work placed in one of the 11 stations along the W Line, 10 artists were selected by the judging committees. Today, along with the mosaics, paintings and sculptures, there are 22 murals and 30 colorfully wrapped utility boxes along the route. Additionally, many of the shelters, benches and windscreens at the stations are also works of art.
The Art in Transit program delivers art that is whimsical, educational or simply visually appealing, but every piece tells a story about that station’s neighborhood. If the artistic telling of these stories makes the locals feel proud of their community or gives them an appreciation for all that happened to make their neighborhood what it is today, the placemaking, however defined, is making an impact.