Out West student blog

Conservation, Art, and Exploration

Image: Watching the evening light fade in the Colorado mountains. Photo: John Marshall

By Nate Marshall
Environmental Systems Engineering '20
Community Conservation Program Intern
Trust for Public Land

The biologist John Lawton wrote that “at its heart, conservation is not a scientific activity.” Though only in my fifteenth day in Denver at The Trust for Public Land (TPL), I have already experienced a paradigm shift well-summarized by Lawton’s quote. Conservation was a wildlife biologist conducting species counts in a national park to me. It was wilderness areas – remote, set apart, and free from human habitation. It was the endangered species – California Condors, wolves, and salamanders. The Trust for Public Land is not concerned with preserving wilderness. Instead, its mission statement, “land for people,” reflects a broader, human-centric approach to conservation. Slowly, I am realizing that when communities of people are in proximity to public land, they benefit economically, socially, and environmentally. Public health improves. And people are inspired to explore, to innovate, and to care for resources and land. This philosophy hearkens back to Thoreau, who wrote that “life consists with wildness.” TPL considers conservation a social activity.

A Crash Course in “Creative Placemaking”

The learning process has indeed been slow for me. Beneficially slow because real learning is experiential learning, and experiences occur gradually. My mentors at The Trust for Public Land did not provide me with specific guidance or instructions for my project. They introduced me to the concept of “creative placemaking” and to Airtable, a new spreadsheet/database program that soon became an invaluable research tool for me. My mentors are developing a new TPL program, called Community Futures, intended to create close, long-term partnerships with rural communities. For the first few weeks of my internship, they asked me to think and write about the following questions that arose from our preliminary discussion: What is creative placemaking, how is it accomplished, and what are its results? How does TPL’s mission intersect with the body of existing and emerging rural creative placemaking projects? And how can TPL’s services be leveraged to serve rural needs? These questions have complex answers, so I began with research and did gradually arrived at a structure for my report.

They asked me to think and write about the following questions: What is creative placemaking, how is it accomplished, and what are its results? How does TPL’s mission intersect with the body of existing and emerging rural creative placemaking projects? And how can TPL’s services be leveraged to serve rural needs?

Before I could think about structuring my report or typing a character, I needed to learn what creative placemaking means. One definition from the National Endowment for the Arts states that “creative placemaking is when artists, arts organizations, and community development practitioners deliberately integrate arts and culture into community revitalization work.” Partnerships, and specifically, empowering artists to shape their community alongside developers and planners, are key elements of this practice. During my first week, I read reports from the National Endowment for the Arts and peer-reviewed papers and watched webinars. Information soon populated my Airtable document in the form of links, descriptions, summaries, and categorizations, and I transitioned to studying examples of successful creative placemaking projects. Learning about existing concepts allowed me to define creative placemaking less abstractly. Creative placemaking encompasses projects to display community art in public spaces, community-driven efforts to improve downtown walkability, artist residency programs, trade organizations to empower local craftspeople, an art auction to fund local watershed protection, and a mobile community center where younger generations can learn the art of a perfect rhubarb pie.

One local example of creative placemaking is Denver’s New Freedom Park, which transformed a dusty lot into a soccer field, playground, and community garden in a neighborhood with a large refugee population. These spaces were designed to bring the diverse population together and helped meet community needs.

New Freedom Park Watch a video introducing a community-oriented placemaking project in Denver.

Doing this research led me to three topics I could contribute to. First, I am drafting answers to critical questions:

  • What is creative placemaking?
  • Why does creative placemaking matter in rural communities?
  • How is rural creative placemaking accomplished?
  • What are some examples of successful creative placemaking projects?

Next, I am synthesizing the lessons from past creative placemaking projects into a list of effective strategies and common themes. My final section discusses areas of overlap between creative placemaking’s objectives and TPL’s mission. Though the connection between creative placemaking and The Trust for Public Land’s “land for people” mission is not immediately evident, I am discovering opportunities for TPL to do creative placemaking work. For example, partnering with communities on waterfront restoration to improve non-motorized transportation corridors and to make space for local artists to create public art or restoring a downtown plaza to beautify a natural community meeting place and attract local businesses are potential TPL and creative placemaking projects. Between writing paragraphs for this blog, I am finishing the final components of this rural creative placemaking report, and I am looking forward to refining and revising it in the coming days.

Though my individual creative placemaking research has been my focus lately, it is not the only project I have worked on at TPL. Earlier this year, the funding situation for Community Futures became uncertain, and Community Futures began pursuing grants again to maintain the program. During my first week, I reviewed the documents that were developed for the grant proposals, noting redundancies and addressing ambiguities. Flexibility and urgency are critical to developing a new nonprofit program, and it was exciting to play a role in Community Futures’ financial adjustments and witness the Community Futures team’s urgency and flexibility in regards to program funding.

Exploring the Landscapes Around Denver

In addition to working at The Trust for Public Land, I have taken advantage of the beautiful public lands in and near Denver, Colorado (some of which were established due to work by The Trust for Public Land). Recently, I have explored Cherry Creek State Park, climbed Green Mountain outside of Boulder, and run Ptarmigan Peak in the central Rockies. Last weekend, I competed in the Barr Mountain Trail Race on Pike’s Peak and exhausted myself climbing and then descending 3,500 feet in the thin, oxygen-poor mountain air. I am gaining quality experience training for next season with the Stanford Running Club and enjoying my time away from the office.

I am extremely grateful for the Bill Lane Center for the West’s summer internship program and its supporters. The summer has been a valuable learning experience so far, and I am looking forward to working on additional projects in the coming weeks and hopefully visiting the communities with whom Community Futures is developing relationships.

Read more at the Out West Student Blog »

Recent Center News

Wildfire smoke erases years of clean-air gains; why the biggest Colorado River water users will have the most trouble cutting back, despite likely new requirements; disproportionate Arizona heat deaths among trailer residents; insects still protected by California’s endangered species act, and more environmental news from around the West.
A bighorn sheep lies dead by the side of U.S. Highway 85 in western North Dakota (North Dakota Department of Game and Fish) By Felicity Barringer Up Close
Stanford researchers have developed an AI model for predicting dangerous particle pollution to help track the American West’s rapidly worsening wildfire smoke. The detailed results show millions of Americans are routinely exposed to pollution at levels rarely seen just a decade ago.