Re-making water visible

Boston LightWells Project


Working in Boston’s dense fabric and historic landscape, this public space project engages with a number of questions: how can design make visible the sustainable and unsustainable processes of water in daily urban life? How can water once again become a force to productively shape the human experience of urban space? How can water connect cultural and ecological systems?

Boston, like many cities, faces increasingly difficult issues of simultaneous excess and scarcity of water, overwhelmed with floods and a depleting groundwater table that threatens historic structures and coastal ecologies. Rainwater can travel from roofs and impermeable surfaces through old, centralized and combined storm and sewer infrastructure into water bodies, carrying pollutants from human activity, from fertilizing to driving. This invisible process is normalized and engrained in the physical form and experience of the urban landscape, such that consequences are far removed from the people and spaces that initiate the path of urban water.

Funded by Autodesk, the Boston Groundwater Trust, the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, and the College of Arts, Media & Design at Northeastern University, this project explores how one of the most invisible but critical ecological processes in urban landscapes, ground water recharge, can be engaged in the poetics of public place making; how design and technology can be coupled with natural systems to build resilient urban environments and heighten the cultural experience and collective consciousness of the water cycle.

A series of interactive installations leverage naturalized and structural strategies of stormwater storage, infiltration, management, and monitoring by making underground or hidden systems visible, and communicating the invisible movement of water in ways that animate public space, through sensing, data visualization, crowdsourcing, light and place making.

Led by  Assistant Professor Michelle Laboy, working in collaboration with her partner at FieLDworkshop, and industry partner ConformLab, this ongoing project in the city where Olmsted first made water legible in urban form, is an experiment in re-making water visible.