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City as Living Laboratory

City as Living Laboratory (CALL) works with artists, scientists, and residents of urban communities to create sustainable solutions for urgent environmental issues including climate, equity and health.  They help people connect environmental challenges to personal experience and take action. CALL’s projects are organised around the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It is a USA based, non-profit organisation founded by internationally recognised artist Mary Miss.

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Project Description

City as Living Laboratory’s artist-facilitated programmes, focused by the Sustainable Development Goals, help citizens connect local environmental challenges to personal experience and take action to make their communities more resilient and sustainable.  CALL initiates collaborative programmes with artists, scientists, urban planners, community stakeholders, and government officials to educate, inspire, and motivate urban residents to address crises of environmental degradation, natural disasters, and crumbling infrastructure in urban neighbourhoods.   

CALL’s projects develop over time through an iterative process. Projects typically begin with several public walks (known as CALL/WALKS) testing out ideas between teams of artists and scientists. These walks inform community workshops, where pressing local environmental concerns are explored in more depth. Out of these workshops, CALL invites proposals for both small scale and city-wide artist projects that address these challenges in a tangible way, revealing hidden ecologies and promoting sustainable, regenerative development.

Major projects and programmes include:

Rescuing Tibbetts Brook: one stitch at a time  This project, located in New York, is focused on the buried Tibbetts Brook stream, which has become the leading cause of pollution in the Harlem River due to sewer overflow.  In addition to water pollution, flooding plagues the surrounding Marble Hill district and the neighbourhoods surrounding Van Cortlandt Park.  

The project’s proposed solution is unearthing Tibbetts Brook and channelling it along an abandoned railroad line directly into the Harlem River, ‘daylighting’ the river to return it to the open air. This will allow the clean, fresh water of Tibbetts Brook to bypass the sewer system, collect excess rainwater, and create a linear park with a walking trail and bike path, which could join a new greenway that is planned to connect Van Cortlandt Park to the High Bridge.   

Rescuing Tibbetts Brook creates a framework through which area residents can engage in seeing, learning, and developing environmental stewardship by inviting artists to create a multi-faceted corridor with places of engagement that reveal the rich ecology of the stream, its function, and its connection to the urban context. 

This project will re-purpose as sites of activation the seven bridges that cross the proposed path for daylighting Tibbetts Brook as well as the adjacent motorway. Installations, visible both at street level on the bridge and from the motorway below, will call attention to the natural ecology of the area and the proposal for daylighting. Walks, workshops, and art projects will enable residents to take part in the planning process and explore their personal connections to the area. 

While the larger installations have not yet been materialised as of autumn 2019, artist projects have begun. CALL commissioned three projects in 2018 and 2019, which have enabled local residents to engage with the daylighting project in different ways. Two such projects are:

  • Artist Bob Braine’s project Estuary Tattoos draws out visceral connections between individuals and the landscape they inhabit, associating the way in which water flows through the landscape with the human body’s own circulatory system. Using tattoo ink as body paint, Braine maps the history of the Bronx Wetlands on participants’ bodies, while talking to them about the history of the landscape and their present experience of it. Thus far, CALL has organised five performances of this work on or adjacent to the original course of Tibbetts Brook. These intimate experiences helped participating residents understand their present ecological struggle – the persistent flooding of their neighbourhood – in its context, and helped create new advocates for the daylighting project.  
  • CALL commissioned SLO Architecture to develop a mobile model wetland that would help residents tangibly experience the potential future of Tibbetts Brook.  Their research was informed by participation in CALL/WALKS (see below), having led walks along the stream and proposed new routes with ecologist and director of the Mannahatta Project Eric Sanderson and environmental engineer Theo Barbagianis. The wetland travelled to different points along the original course of the stream and the proposed daylighting route for public events, creating a focal point for conversations about the project as well as contributions by other artists and organisations, such as the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Over the course of 2019-2022, CALL plans to continue to invite a wide range of local artists to create temporary and permanent installations, host workshops, and present performances and other live art events as a part of this project. The aim is for this artist-led research is to inform the City’s overall plan for Tibbetts Brook.

An artist's impression of the daylighting plans for Tibbett's Brook

An artist’s impression of the daylighting plans for Tibbett’s Brook

Watermarks, An Atlas of Water for the City of MilwaukeeThis project, located in Milwaukee, is designed to help citizens better understand their relationships to the water systems and infrastructure that support their lives.  The centrepiece makes the 350-foot smokestack of the Jones Island sewage and storm water treatment plant a work of public art. The smokestack would typically be lit blue, changing to red when heavy rains are forecast, reminding residents to reduce their water use to help prevent the deep tunnel storage system from overflowing.   

Additional installations of ‘WaterMarkers,’ large letters mounted on tall poles throughout the Harbour District and other neighbourhoods, will call attention to the different water resources unique to each area. These markers will be sites for activity; each one will be sponsored by a community group, school, and/or local agency, and activated with the help of artists and designers.  Alongside the installation of the markers there are numerous projects by local artists being installed and performed throughout the area. Regular workshops, school programmes, walks, and other activities continually inform the development of the project and generate more artistic engagements.

National CALL/WALKSthis 2019 programme of artist and scientist led community walks in six US cities was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.  An artist and scientist paired up to host each walk in Baltimore, Milwaukee, New York City, Pittsburgh, Santa Fe, and Arlington. Each walk examined local environmental issues with both artistic vision and scientific knowledge.  For these walks, CALL developed a toolkit that can be used by local communities to lead walks in their neighbourhoods to ignite conversations about how their city can best adapt to the contemporary environmental challenges it faces.

Partners & Stakeholders

City as Living Laboratory is currently in operation as a non-profit organisation, led by Mary Miss and team members including, Olivia Georgia (Executive Director), Aaron Asis (Urban Designer), Adrián Cerezo (Social Ecologist), Liza Cucco (Studio & Programmes Manager), and Phoebe Boatwright (Archivist), alongside a board of directors.

Most CALL projects involve steering committees made up of local community leaders, who steward and guide the on-the-ground progress of the project.

CALL also partners with a wider variety of organisations:

  • Tibbetts Brook partners include: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, New York City Department of Parks, New York City Department of Environmental Protection, Van Cortlandt Park Alliance, the Coalition for Daylighting Tibbetts Brook, The Bronx Council for Environmental Quality, and more.
  • Watermarks partners include: the Milwaukee Development Department, Department of Public Works and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewer Department, Marquette University and Haggerty Museum, University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.
  • National CALL/WALKS partners include: the Maryland Institute College of Art, Provisions Centre for Art and Social Change at George Mason University, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Santa Fe Arts Institute, and Pittsburgh Department of City Planning.

Sustainability Issues

CALL’s work aims to make complex and abstract issues comprehensible and tangible, using the arts to motivate people towards actions through connecting environmental issues with immediate personal experiences. Their initiatives focus on projects that are designed to both accelerate cities’ efforts towards meeting key targets set by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and help the public understand what they’re all about. Individual projects are structured around specific SDGs that provide a clear framework to measure the success of the project. For example, the Rescuing Tibbetts Brook project focuses on the following SDGs:

  • Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
  • Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  • Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation, and foster innovation
  • Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
  • Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development
  • Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

Both the deep ecology and the artistic grace of our urban areas are often unseen or under appreciated. CALL/WALKS overcome these deficiencies and immerse us in appreciating and improving our urban environments.

Steward Pickett, Urban Ecologist at Cary Institute, CALL Board Member

Lessons, Tips & Advice

The iterative process of the CALL Framework places a high value on partnership working, meaningful public participation, and a continual feedback loop.  City as Living Laboratory is not an accidental name. CALL is trying things out, seeing what works, and encouraging experimentation. CALL aims to change the way city leaders view the role of artists in regenerative development. 

  • Artists are involved from the start and are in equal partnership with other thought leaders. All members are equal players.
  • The unique expertise of local residents is essential and highly valued.
  • Community buy-in is of utmost importance. Project proposals arise from community concerns and interests and are evaluated by steering committees of community members before proceeding.
  • There is always a way for new information to enter the process. Walks, workshops, test projects, and forums explore ideas throughout the entire life cycle of a project.
  • The more cross-disciplinary the approach, the more successful the project.
  • Each project is a new test case for best practice. The learning gained becomes a resource for future endeavors by CALL and its partners.
  • The practical actions that arise from CALL’s programs are well-informed. Participants leave knowing a great deal about the issues at hand, with tools they can use to creatively explore those issues and communicate about them to others.


City as Living Laboratory is funded by a large number of agencies, sponsors and foundations as well as individual benefactors including:

Adobe, NYC Department of Youth and Community Development, Marquette University, Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, National Endowment for the Arts, National Science Foundation, NYSCA, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation,  Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Jewish Communal Fund, Agnes Gund Foundation, NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, The Greenwich Collection, and more.

Related Projects


Artists are underutilised assets for cities and the environment: People often perceive climate change and other environmental risks as future events, happening to people in places far away, outside their own experience. Art has the power to involve people through visceral and place-based experiences, direct personal connection, and emotional engagement to evoke reaction and inspire action. City as Living Laboratory proposes that sustainability can be made tangible and accessible to communities through the arts. Mary Miss, Founder & Artistic Director

All images courtesy of CALL

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