Using art to highlight Eastie climate change

At library, ribbons show potential sea level rise

IT’S AN UNUSUAL SIGHT: Colored ribbons 18-feet-long stretched taut over steel bars, melting into brightly colored duct tape clinging to pavement outside the East Boston Public Library.

The creators of the collaborative art installation, called “RisingEMOTIONS,” say it visualizes the public’s emotional state about flooding due to sea level rise. The project is led by Carolina Aragón, a public artist and assistant professor of landscape architecture & regional planning at UMass Amherst, and Narges Mahyar, assistant professor in the school’s college of information and computer sciences, and their team of students.

The art installation is based on data collected from an online survey filled out by over 150 East Boston residents. The survey, conducted in English and Spanish, tried to tease out feelings about climate change and its impact on East Boston neighborhoods.

The RisingEMOTIONS project visually displays projected flood levels and people’s emotions about climate change. (Photo by Matthew J. Conti)

Respondents could answer with five emotions: concerned, optimistic, angry, sad, and other. They were also asked to leave comments explaining their specific emotion. Each emotion gets a colored band, and the bans are placed 3.7 feet above the ground, the height of the projected 1 percent annual chance flood for 2070 in front of the East Boston Public Library.

The comments of survey participants were hand-drawn on to the bands. “I am afraid my home will flood, and I’ll lose my life’s savings,” said one. “I’m afraid the city will care less because we are a less affluent community,” said another. Others said “I want to know what the government is doing and what steps they are taking to address this” and “I hope we can slow it down.”

The steel bars over which the ribbons are stretched are electrical conduits from hardware stores, The long nylon ribbons were cut by hand from rolls of fabric with X-Acto knives.

Aragón says the project is a continuation of last year’s public art installation in East Boston called AGUAfuturas (future waters,) which demonstrated what flooding levels would look like in a hundred-year-storm if Boston’s climate ready report is correct.

She hopes the installation will encourage residents to take part in local planning efforts by the Boston Planning & Development Agency, the city’s Environment Department, and the work of nonprofits around climate change.

“At the end of the survey, we asked if you want to be more involved or know more, and that’s how we linked people into Climate Ready Boston efforts. We serve as a point of entry so this doesn’t end with the piece of art,” Aragón said.

The gradations of blue in the map show how the 1% annual chance flood extent changes as sea levels rise. The
colors do not indicate depth of flooding. The arrows show the flood entry points and pathways with current sea
levels, 9 inches of sea level rise (2030s), and 36 inches of sea level rise (2070s).(Photo from the 2017 Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown Report)

RisingEMOTIONS was partially funded by a $6,000 Barr Foundation grant to the Friends of the Mary Ellen Welch Greenway, and was developed in collaboration with the Boston Society of Landscape Architects. The project got approval from the seven-member Boston Art Commission, which votes on all public art installations on public land, in November.

“The city as a whole is generally very devoted to addressing the climate change crisis in East Boston, specifically because it’s such a high-risk neighborhood for coastal flooding,” said Kristina Carroll, spokeswoman for the mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture. Carroll added that the commission also funded a 2018 project called “Waters Edge” in the Boston Harbor Shipyard in East Boston.

By the end of the century, between 10 and 20 percent of Charlestown, East Boston, downtown, and South Boston will face flooding at high tide, even without a major weather event, according to the city’s 2019 Climate Action Plan. Projections indicate sea level could rise in East Boston by at least nine inches by 2030 from 2000 levels.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Much of East Boston, as well as Logan International Airport, is built on a filled-in tidal flat that once included five islands. The city’s 2017 East Boston Climate Ready Report proposes ways to deal with seal level rise, such as an East Boston Greenway flood wall, elevated streets and parks, and berms.

The RISING Emotions creators are planning a community gathering to unveil the project on Saturday.