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Denver Art Installation Doubles as Skate Park and Stormwater Mitigation

The “Community Forms” project in Denver is making waves for combining public art, play space and infrastructure. And FEMA wants to fund more projects like it.

Artist Matt Barton on site at Community Forms, 2021. (Image courtesy Black Cube)

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A new art installation in Colorado is more than just sleek design. At first glance, the “Community Forms” project might just look like shaped concrete made to intrigue passersby. But it’s also been designed to be played with — and it has a key infrastructure job for its Denver neighborhood.

Artist and skateboarder Matt Barton merged public art, play space and stormwater mitigation at a 25-acre former Yellow Cab site near the Globeville neighborhood just north of downtown Denver. It’s an area known for flooding concerns adjacent to the region’s South Platte River. The site, now a work-live development called TAXI, has an asphalt parking lot that was turning into a lake when it rained hard. The stormwater mitigation was not working.

So Barton, in partnership through his fellowship with the nonprofit, experimental art museum Black Cube, designed a concrete public art installation and skate park that also diverts rainwater. The result is a unique space, about 100 feet by 30 feet, that invites play. Construction broke ground in April and the permanent installation opened in May.

“I just took my shovel and moved some dirt out of the way … and [water] just was … gushing into this ditch. I was like, ‘Great, this is awesome,’” says Barton, who added that the project was designed so the water could feed some of the existing trees on the site.

With its peaks, slopes and valleys, “Community Forms” shapes were inspired by the way water would carve through the earth in a western U.S. landscape, explains Barton, who is also professor and co-director of the visual art program at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

“It had to visually be successful. That was totally like number one — it’s supposed to be an artwork,” he says. “So balancing all those things was kind of the fun part.”

Cortney Lane Stell, executive director and chief curator at Black Cube, says Barton was as interested in creating an elegant, viewable form as he was in creating conversation about flood mitigation and a play space for skateboarders and those of any age.

“[Barton] is interested in looking at how we can hybridize spaces and think about space so it can serve multiple functions,” Lane Stell says. “How can we not just continue to limit ourselves by thinking: ‘Oh, this is a bike rack; I can only park a bike here. Oh, this is a plaza; I can really put a big sculpture here. For a drainage ditch, we can only use it to flow water.’ So how can we think about spaces being more multi-use?”

“Community Forms” cost an estimated $100,000 and was partially funded with $34,000 through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Arts in Mitigation Fund. The Denver project is FEMA’s first grant for this type of work and the agency says it most certainly won’t be the last.

“[The Denver project] encourages multiple uses for the ground and for the complex and solves one of the natural hazard risk issues that is flooding in that particular area,” says Tony Mendes, mitigation specialist at FEMA. “We’re getting very anecdotal feedback information from people who use the park, including athletes, skateboarders and the folks who just live and work in the community. It has all been positive.”

That’s the gamble, Lane Stell says: When you build something that’s meant for public use, will it actually be used by the public?

“The thing that’s been most impactful for me is that literally every time I go down there … people are using it,” she says.

The drainage is important so water doesn’t flood over into the nearby Platte River, especially if there’s a big water or snow event, Lane Stell says. “Community Forms” is designed so it can direct water appropriately to soak into soil and more slowly drain into the river.

“It’s also a wider call for people to think about if you’re investing so much money in a water retention system and a bioswale,” Lane Stell said. “If you can take it a little bit further and actually make it a use, that helps people understand how these infrastructure elements function in their community, but then also make use of it when it’s not functioning.”

Mendes also appreciates the natural forms of the project: “Once men get involved in trying to over-engineer and steer the water, the way we want it to go, as opposed to the way Mother Nature wants it to go, then we’re in trouble. So the idea of helping water to go where it naturally wants to go, kind of meets both ends.”

“We’re super excited that it actually did something functional — and even more that it created a social gathering space,” Barton said. “It invites people to occupy the space.”

Though Barton himself is a lifelong skateboarder, the idea, Barton says, was to invite human exploration and interaction in a non-prescribed way. Skaters use the unique forms of the concrete park, but nearby preschoolers have been playing on it as well.

“Me designing these concrete forms, there’s no way [my skateboarding background] wasn’t also going on the whole time in my head where I’m imagining, ‘Oh my gosh, you can come up on this side and make it over here,’” Barton said.

Barton would love to see similar multipurpose projects like this one, not confined to a gallery or museum.

“This feels like it’s a lot like a living thing,” Barton said. “Now people come. It’s just there.”

Lane Stell and Mendes also hope this Denver project could be a model of what’s possible for infrastructure in other cities and parts of the country. FEMA is interested in hearing from people with ideas that merge art and structural mitigation (although there are no formal requests for proposals currently open). Right now, one of the few similar projects is in Denmark, where Rabalder Parken also tackles rainwater mitigation in a skatepark form.

“Hopefully we can show this off as a model, and other communities would be interested in replicating … the idea of a multiple use facility and not just having slabs of concrete,” Mendes adds.

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Vignesh Ramachandran is a Denver-based freelance journalist and co-founder of Red, White and Brown Media. He’s on Twitter at @VigneshR.

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