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By Elisabeth Monaghan

This past November, Wheat Ridge residents voted to approve 2E, a measure that increases the city’s sales tax rate by one-half of one cent. The funds from the increase will go towards “placemaking” efforts. The concept of placemaking 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 March issue of the Neighborhood Gazette, Wheat Ridge Mayor Joyce Jay offered an explanation of placemaking and how it applies to Wheat Ridge: 

“Placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning design and management of public spaces. It capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration and potential, to create public spaces that promote the health, happiness and well-being of those living and working there. In other words, placemaking focuses on creating spaces for people, not just for shopping or cars…. Placemaking allows us to pay attention to what defines Wheat Ridge, our history, our culture, even the physical outdoor spaces that define our city and support our continuing evolution.”

Before placemaking worked its way into city planning vernacular, RTD had created its own version of the concept, using art to create a greater sense of community. With its Art in Transit program, RTD has placed murals, sculptures, and other traditional and nontraditional works at its stations, created 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 Tierney 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 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. 

As Wheat Ridge prepares for the eventual opening of the G Line, prospective riders and residents can look forward to seeing how the art installations in their neighborhood light rail station will showcase their community. Like those at light rail stations along the other lines, the various art pieces may be whimsical, educational or simply visually appealing, but every piece will tell 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.