Beautifying Streets and Boosting Local Economy: The Steel Yard’s Eight Year Collaboration with the Town of Bristol, RI

Building Up Beautiful Bristol: The Steel Yard’s Eight Year Collaboration with the Town of Bristol, RI.

NEFA Award Recipient

Bristol, RI

Contact Name
Tim Ferland
Project Dates
Workshop Leader
Creative Communities Exchange (CCX) 2019
Municipal government and planning, Placemaking/placekeeping, Downtown preservation/main streets, Design, Workforce Development
The Steel Yard worked with the Town of Bristol over the course of many years to outfit two major thoroughfares with artistic street amenities. These include trash and recycling cans, bike racks, benches, decorative medallions, and planters, to name a few. The bulk of the work, commissioned by the Town’s Department of Planning and Community Development, has been augmented by smaller privately-funded projects in the area. While bolstering community identity and beautifying streets, the Steel Yard also redistributed funds to artists, local vendor partners, and workforce trainees. The Public Projects Department from the Steel Yard and the Director of Community Development from the Town of Bristol will present about this work, sharing their complementary perspectives on the projects.
Project Goals
What were the specific goals of this creative economy project? Describe the community development challenge or opportunity that your project was designed to address:
- Create a sense of Place
- Beautify neighborhoods
- Improve quality of life for all through improved aesthetics, more and safer bicycling and walking opportunities
- Create a greater sense of community that celebrates the neighborhood’s heritage
- Employ local artists
- Train Weld to Work participants
- Reinvest in the local economy by working with local industry partners when feasible.
- Be an Economic Multiplier.
- Design and make high quality products that both serve as public art, and work well for the municipality (DPW) and community.
Our artistic street amenities were designed to improve the experience of Bristol as a pedestrian and/or biker. Our trash and recycling cans replaced old, heavy trash cans. Our additions of bike racks and benches allowed for bike parking and provided places to rest. The lamp post decorative medallions on Wood Street celebrate the culture of the neighborhood.
If the goals change over time, please describe how:
- Shift focus from Hope Street area to Wood Street. Distinguish one from the other, as they have very different characters.
- Specifically, make our first ever line of side-opening trash cans to improve the experience of emptying the cans.
- Include/Encourage recycling
Who was involved in this project and what did they do? (be sure to include the partners from outside of the creative sector and how local voices were included):
- The Steel Yard: Serve as project manager. We employ artists from the RI community to design and fabricate the amenities, give them access to our guidance, facilities, and cover them under our insurance, allowing artists to do this work without needing their own shop or liability insurance. Ensure safety and code compliance of projects, manage installation, maintain client relationships.
Town of Bristol, Department of Planning and Community Development: Diane Williamson (Director) and Ed Tanner (Principal Planner/Zoning Officer). The Town funded a significant portion of the projects through their own budget, but also applied for large grants to cover the bulk of the costs. During the design and planning process, they also serve as conduits to the community and other municipal branches, and assist in selecting the locations of the pieces.
- Bristol Department of Public Works: Responsible for emptying trash cans, general maintenance. Provide feedback during design phase.
- Business/Neighborhood Associations for both Hope Street and Wood Street: Provide feedback on designs, express desires of community members.
- Local RI Artists and trainees from our weld to work program: Do the amazing work of designing and fabricating!
- Mosaico Community and Business Development Corporation: Diana Campbell, Director. Crucial participation in initiating and advocating for Wood Street improvements, raising money to fund first ever Wood Street project (Fence around Bristol Industrial Park), provide history of the neighborhood, contribute to design decisions.

How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
Our work with Bristol directly relates to the larger community development strategy of improving the Town’s walkability, bikeability and beautification. Walking and Biking audits have been completed, with a plan to create a Bristol Bicycling Map for residents and visitors. Our work also inadvertently supports the work of the Bristol Health Equity Zone (collaborative neighborhood groups funded by the RI Department of Health to improve community health from a holistic perspective), which has also focused much of their efforts on Wood Street. Our designs, influenced by the surrounding architecture, accentuated the industrial culture of the neighborhood, which was important to the Town.
What projects or places, if any, inspired your approach to this creative economy project?
Our approach to these projects builds off of all our previous projects, which we have been doing since 2007.
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
- Form relationship with Planning Department. (make sure they are familiar with the Steel yard as an organization, what we do, and where our strengths lie)
- Planning department solicits quote for desired work
- The Steel Yard Provides a quote
- Bristol applies for funding, writing the Steel Yard into their grant application.
- If funding is awarded, write up and sign a Steel Yard contract. Our contracts outline the scope of work, process, general product details, time frame, cost, and legal terms.
- Do the work !
- Meet with community stakeholders to develop visual themes/desired aesthetics
- Hire design team base on the desires of the client/community
- Bring design team through the area so they can draw inspiration from it
- Develop designs, go through review process with community stakeholders. This normally includes a few initial concept sketches, followed by 1-2 rounds of revisions.
- Fabricate final design at the Steel Yard. The Steel Yard is responsible for meeting with the artists to determine and purchase materials.
- Finish (powder coat, paint or galvanize) with local industry partner
- Install
- Follow up
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
With these projects, we have actually not run into many of the obstacles that we typically see in our other work, such as the clients not finding enough funding, or difficulty securing talent with our Independent Contractor based model of hiring artists. We did run into our general operational obstacles in communication and organization that arise from only having two staff people, and occasionally have had difficulty meeting deadlines.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
The Town writing us into their grant applications is crucial to overcoming certain common obstacles, as we did not have to submit a bid in order to do the project. That is crucial because if we are not written into the application, grants often require the client to choose the lowest bidder, which we are not. In the realm of securing artists, having a large job is appealing to good lead artists, as it is much more substantial, reliable income, and worth taking on as an independent contractor. Having a larger project also makes us more cost-effective, as we are able to meet minimums set by industry partners. Overall, having such an enthusiastic and supportive client has been absolutely instrumental in how smoothly our Bristol projects have run.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
- See if you can be written into grants
- Find the fine line of allowing artists/designers to be the experts, while accommodating the desires of the community. The model we have developed solicits community feedback early, so that the artists have a few general themes to work under (such as “nautical”, or “industrial”.) Then, let the artists do what they do best, and the client typically is pleased with minor revisions.
- Maintain strong communication with client throughout the process.
Project Impact
How has this project strategically connected arts and cultural activities to social, economic, and cultural issues in your community? What is different in your community as a result of this project?
Projects have succeeded in celebrating unique culture and character of different neighborhoods in Bristol, while improving the bike/walk of the streets. Has contributed to beautifying the town, and become iconic for the neighborhoods. Having these amenities makes the neighborhoods more suited for events, such as annual State Street Fair, Wood Street Arbor Day celebration, Fourth of July Parade. All these events support sense of community identity and pride.

Economically, our model is able to distribute funds from the Town, RI Commerce Corporation, Department of Environmental Management, and RI Department of Transportation back into the local creative economy. Specifically, we provide good supplemental income to artists and fabricators. We provide a flexible work schedule for them, and take care of everything so that all they need to do is come the the Steel Yard ready to work. Over the course of the eight years we’ve been worked with Bristol, between publicly and privately funded projects, we have paid over $20,000 to local artists.

We are also able to train and employ Weld to Work participants and graduates, who are Rhode Islanders at or below the federal poverty line. We can provide them with necessary income while they transition from our training programs into more full time careers.

Lastly, more beautiful streets are good for business in Bristol! All those small entrepreneurial business owners can feel confident that the Town is supporting their enterprises, and investing in the streetscapes so customers are encouraged to visit.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
We consider our work in Bristol successful for many reasons. For one, we have made good quality products that we stand by. They are still there, some having needed repairs, but repairs we are able and happy to do. The positive response from community members (business owners, residents), is a huge indicator of success, as well as the positive response from the artists and trainees we’ve hired who enjoyed the experience and are proud of the work. By maintaining the relationships for so long, we’ve been able to bring new artists on board. We’ve added public recycling bins and bike racks were there were previously none, and thus contributed to improved eco friendliness. We keep improving our trash and recycling products with DPW to make them nicer to empty.
How did you measure this success or progress?
Qualitative testimonies of positive experiences, and the fact that Bristol has kept coming back to hire us, meaning they have had positive experiences the previous times. We measure financial data through our accounts, and can measure local economic impact that way (such as amount of money able to put back in local economy through artists and industry partners, and # of artists paid)
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
The Town going out of their way to find funding to partner with us
Other businesses, associations and institutions in Bristol (for example, Colt Andrews School, Bristol Highlands Improvement Association) hiring us for other projects
The Town inviting us to do blacksmithing demonstrations at local street fairs to generate enthusiasm for the industrial arts.
CCX Workshop Handout

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