Art & Green Infrastructure

Deidra smiles in front of the Boston skyline
Former Program Coordinator, Creative City
Art and Green Infrastructure presenter Stacy Levy

On January 29, more than 70 artists, arts administrators, and regional and municipal planners gathered at the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) to learn more about the intersections of public art and the environment. The event, Art and Green Infrastructure, was the second in the three-part Art and Culture Discussion Series co-hosted by NEFA and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC). This series was designed to explore how public art can address a range of planning goals and objectives related to green infrastructure, community building, economic development, and public health; and to build cohesion among artists, arts administrators, and municipal planners. This second presentation and discussion sought to demonstrate how art can be integrated into green infrastructure to have a higher impact.

Carolyn Lewenberg, artist in residence at MAPC’s Arts and Culture Division, began the discussion by sharing a definition of green infrastructure from the Environmental Protection Agency: "Green infrastructure is a cost-effective, resilient approach to managing wet weather impacts that provides many community benefits…[it can] move urban storm water away from the built environment…[and] reduces and treats storm water at its source while delivering environmental, social, and economic benefits."

While green infrastructure is undoubtedly beneficial for humans and their environments, Lewenberg noted that green infrastructure projects are often “invisible” and can be difficult for planners to fit in their budgets.

To explore the lack of demand for these projects, guest speaker, Stacy Levy shares her experience as a Pennsylvania-based environmental sculptor who uses art as a vehicle for translating the patterns and processes of the natural world. Levy demonstrated how art and culture can highlight the value of green infrastructure projects and create more demand. Asked what art can do for green infrastructure, Levy asserted that art can build awareness of change; connect people to their surroundings; celebrate nature; make places for people and the rain; address the curious mind; and create spaces for people to actively participate in solutions.

Jennifer Erickson/MAPC, artist Stacy Levy, Kim Szeto/NEFA, Carolyn Lewenberg/artist in residence, MAPC. Photo by Ann Wicks/NEFA.

Levy emphasized that we must breathe into the rhythm of waterways, rather than pretending everything is going to be how you want it to be after a rain storm. She explained that we have built the places we live for dry feet—that our cities are structured to keep us dry—but that if we are going to live with rain then we need to design for water to have space to spread and soak into the ground rather than getting it into a pipe to get the water offsite as fast as possible. We need to figure out how we can share our surfaces with water, how we can live in a place that is more equitable with nature.

One solution is to create spaces where rain can be held and where it can stay in place for as long as it needs to soak in. Environmental engineers have developed bioswales and rain gardens, designed to mimic natural processes for water movement to prevent flooding and water pollution, but these interventions often tend to be all function and no style. Stacy, through her work, demonstrated that when artists get involved, these installations and the processes they facilitate can be made compelling, educational and apparent. Art can add interactive elements that can make often underground, invisible acts visible; turning boring places into special places for people and rain to come visit. This work is done for both the visitor and for nature. Sometimes that means less real estate for people, but it often makes for more evocative spaces to be human.

A successful project gives rain a place to infiltrate, celebrates nature visibly, embraces variable conditions, and enhances people’s relationship to nature. Levy showed several examples of work she has done that has effectively met these parameters:

  • Rain Ravine at the Frick Environmental Center in Pittsburgh. This building is engineered to meet the Living Building Challenge. This work, an evocative conglomeration of stone basins and runnels that collect the water that falls on and near the building and encourages visitors “to play in the water and reflect on the water cycle”, satisfies two of the components of the challenge’s demands: zero-net waterflow and beauty.
  • Rain Yard at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. This interactive work on permanent display at the Schuylkill Center’s Sensory Garden captures and slows nearly 100,000 gallons of water each year and makes every part of rain’s journey visible. It integrates a porous floor that allows people to hover above the plants and that permits rain to filter down and plants to grow up.
  • Springside Rain Wall and Garden at the Springside School. This project transformed an underused lawn into a striking rain garden that treats storm water that people can watch run down to the ground from the roof of classroom buildings through clear glass watershed pipes.
  • Spiral Wetland on Lake Fayetteville. This floating wetland, inspired by Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1972), mimics natural processes at work in a typical wetland, creating an environment where plant roots and microorganisms can absorb excess nutrients from water

Stacy Levy strongly emphasized collaboration, especially with ecologists, surveyors, wetland specialists, horticulturalists, engineers, designers, fabricators, city planners, community advisors, and building and landscape architects. She said, “The true goal of collaboration is that you don’t know who made the design in the end. It’s this other thing that couldn’t have been made unless all these minds were thinking about it. No one has authority as one heroic artist.”

Stacy also spoke to the imperative that art in green infrastructure cannot be an afterthought, proposing that we augment "GI" (green infrastructure) by creating "GAIA" (green artful infrastructure alternatives) and urging anyone starting infrastructure projects to get artists on the team early in the design process, give artists some clout by making them the design lead, resist any inclination to segregate art locations to a pedestal or niche, let the artist figure out how to interact with the site, and make a list of possible interactions that are desired.

During the question and answer portion, Levy stressed that art can be both evocative and functional, debunked myths about how mosquitoes relate to still water, illuminated how storytellers and other performing artists might contribute to green infrastructure projects, talked about having liability insurance, and provided some guidance about addressing issues related to the cost of maintenance.

The biggest take away from this discussion was the notion that art and culture can create more demand and highlight the value of green infrastructure projects.

See Stacy Levy’s work at, and more photos from the event on NEFA's Facebook page.

The first event in NEFA & MAPC’s three-part Art and Culture Discussion Series, Community Building and Economic Development through Art, nurtured discussion about socially engaged art and creative economic development. The final event of the series, Art and Public Health, will take place Monday, April 23.

4.23.18      Art and Public Health

About New England Foundation for the Arts
The New England Foundation for the Arts invests in artists and communities and fosters equitable access to the arts, enriching the cultural landscape in New England and the nation.  NEFA accomplishes this by granting funds to artists and cultural organizations; connecting them to networks and knowledge-building opportunities; and analyzing their economic contributions. NEFA serves as a regional partner for the National Endowment for the Arts, New England’s state arts agencies, and private foundations. Learn more at

About MAPC’s Arts & Culture Division 
MAPC’s Arts and Culture Division delivers technical assistance in emerging practice areas including cultural planning, creative placemaking, creative community development, arts and cultural data collection and analysis, and cultural policy. The division also develop and deliver trainings for planners, community developers, and local government officials that aim to build competencies in the aforementioned practice areas, and is responsible for the award-winning Arts & Planning Toolkit.

Some content for this blog provided by Carolyn Lewenberg.