May 13, 2022

Art, Community and Hazard Mitigation: A Successful Combination

Explore how the arts can communicate hazard mitigation and bring a community together

Art, Community and Hazard Mitigation

The mission of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is to help people before, during and after disasters, and at the core of FEMA’s mitigation efforts is a commitment to community resiliency in the face of hazard vulnerability. Communities that take mitigation actions before they are faced with natural disasters – such as flooding, wildfires and hurricanes – recover more quickly and suffer less damage.

FEMA has supported communities with robust data to understand their risk for decades. However, encouraging communities to invest in mitigation action, even with compelling data, is a challenge when competing priorities and a common belief that ‘disaster won’t strike here’ is prevalent. To connect the data to action, FEMA recognized that public art can be a powerful tool to tell a story about hazard mitigation in an evocative and memorable way. The ArtWorks initiative was created with a vision to inspire conversations about how our communities are affected by flooding and other natural hazards and how data and mitigation actions can help them reduce the impacts.

FEMA Region 8, which includes Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming, partnered with Resilience Action Partners, a joint venture (JV) between Michael Baker International and Ogilvy. The JV served as the project coordinator for FEMA Region 8, leading the development of an art-for-mitigation strategy. This included meetings with representatives of the creative community, identifying the core goals and objectives for investment, selecting a local partner from the creative community, contracting with the local partner, drafting the call for art and overseeing the art selection process along with the local partner. Resilience Action Partners also drafted information content for the project site signs and coordinated with the artist team through completion.


The arts can communicate the value of mitigation using information and imagery that people can relate to in a personal way. To develop the ArtWorks program, the team implemented a phased approach, starting with background research and strategy development. The team worked with internal stakeholders to identify program priorities, built connections to national incentives for guidance on actions and metrics for success and worked with local partners and experts to build upon years of engagement across creative communities to identify best practices.

In the second phase, a social listening campaign was launched along with a pilot project built from the Phase 1 strategy findings. For this pilot project, FEMA and Resilience Action Partners selected a community partner, the Redline Contemporary Art Center, a nonprofit contemporary art center, and issued goals for the project. Notably, the team did not define what the project should or should not be, allowing for creative interpretation. Ultimately, Black Cube Nomadic Art Museum, a nonprofit visual arts organization, was selected to produce the project that would become known as “Community Forms” by Matt Barton, 2021 Black Cube Artist Fellow, located in the Taxi development of Denver’s River North Art District (RiNo).

Art, Community and Hazard Mitigation

“Community Forms” is part art installation, part community gathering place and part infrastructure support system that helps model storm water mitigation. The drainage channel moves rainwater into bioswales or grassy outlets that slow water flow and prevent flooding. Previously, water in that area drained into one large downspout, without easy access to city drainage systems. The infrastructure was designed in a way that water is collected from the downspout into a ditch that snakes through the site and into the bioswales, so the community can visualize the movement of water.

Barton was inspired by his Western roots in the design of the project, incorporating undulating bumps and mounds inspired by the land in mountainous locations. The space challenges the norm for community spaces, encouraging freeform interaction, creative play and exploration. Composed of concrete, formed earth and recycled materials, this public artwork visually references skateparks and disciplines, such as land and Earth. The project was met with overwhelming community support and spurred the conversations about risk mitigation and resilience as intended.

Art, Community and Hazard Mitigation

The pilot program produced key learnings for future ArtWorks projects, including:

  • A focus on integrating art, community and hazard mitigation: The “Community Forms” project proved to be a successful case study for FEMA Region 8 and Resilience Action Partners because all aspects of the project are integrated and support each other. No piece of the project is optional by design, and the finished project is a testament to balancing form and function.
  • Collaboration among multiple stakeholders: Each group that participated in the project brought their own expertise: FEMA with watershed and floodplain knowledge; Barton as the artist who created and designed “Community Forms;” Black Cube Nomadic Art Museum as the producing nonprofit organization that presented “Community Forms,” overseeing project management, concept development, artist correspondence, site procurement, artwork fabrication, budget administration, fund development, marketing and communications, and community engagement; and the community with what elements of the project would be most important to the area. Collaboration was key to the project being brought to life in a unique and innovative way and give-and-take amongst all of the collaborators was a critical component.
  • Designing for the long-term: The goal of the project is to become a living community asset. The space is designed to continue to bring in underserved community members, making the area stronger and having a lasting impact beyond the opening of the installation.

With the pilot program complete, ArtWorks is moving through the remaining program phases, with the ultimate goal of growing and expanding the initiative throughout the region and the nation.

About the author

Anne Kuechenmeister is the Department Manager – Planning at Michael Baker International