Its fences are rusted; the pavement is broken and cracked; grass is mostly weeds; and pizza boxes, empty cups and cigarette butts are as ever-present as Library Park's volunteers trying to stay ahead of the debris. But at night, especially when it rains and reflections multiply, a lovely display of softly-glowing colors now radiates from the two LightWell sculptures, as they cycle from red to turquoise to yellow to blue.
The art installation, which doubles as a sustainable groundwater and stormwater discharge disperser, is powered by solar-energy panels installed on the roof of the South End library and in branches of one of the tall oak trees. It's the brainchild of Michelle LaBoy, an assistant professor at Northeastern, and funded through a grant by its College of Arts, Media and Design. It was a winner last year of the Public Space Invitational organized through Mayor Walsh's Office of New Urban Mechanics which asked participants to "dream up new ways to bring function and wonderment to civic spaces within a budget of $4,500."
In an on-site explanation, Laboy refers to the project as a "landscape intervention" that seeks to "elevate public awareness of stormwater runoff, collection and recharge in the South End," a part of Boston built on fill and plagued by groundwater loss and fluctuation. The LightWells integrate a wi-fi connected micro controller with water sensors and other systems that are intended to make visible in specific colors the groundwater levels in the dry well underneath. According to Laboy, her team is still "in the observation and calibration stage."
The project, started in June, was delayed by a series of complications in manufacturing and site work, but remarkably was enthusiastically and swiftly approved by the usually reserved South End Landmarks Commission. Mahoney's Nursery's James Hohmann generously provided initial plantings, while local volunteers kept the site watered and picked up.