Public Water Presents New York’s Complex Drinking Water System in Miniature

Located at the northern entrance to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, the newest work by artist Mary Mattingly emulates New York City’s watershed.

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Photo: Manuel Molina Martagon / Courtesy More Art

Visual artist Mary Mattingly, whose practice focuses on ecology and sustainability, has a new project and installation called Public Water, located in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, that addresses issues surrounding New York City’s watershed.

The project features a 10-foot-tall, metal geodesic dome at the Grand Army Plaza entrance to the park. The piece is a structural ecosystem covered in native plants that filter water through a gravity-fed design, mimicking the geologic features of a watershed—a high area of land where rain collects and flows down to supply rivers, lakes, and bodies of water. New York City’s drinking water comes from three watersheds located north of the city: the Croton, Catskill and Delaware watersheds. The regional system consists of almost 2,000 square miles of reservoirs, aqueducts, distribution pipes, and water tunnels that channel drinking water to residents and visitors through gravity alone, similar to the sculpture.

A previous version of the dome appeared in an exhibition in early 2020 at the Central Library of the Brooklyn Public Library, also located at Grand Army Plaza, and was then slated to move outside to the park. The original Prospect Park outdoor display was postponed by the pandemic.

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Photo: Manuel Molina Martagon / Courtesy More Art

A joint initiative of the Prospect Park Alliance, NYC Parks, the Brooklyn Public Library and More Art—a New York nonprofit that commissions socially engaged public art projects—Public Water also features a digital campaign, education initiatives, and a walking tour through Prospect Park, marking the launch of a natural filtration pilot project for its manmade watercourse, ecoWEIR. A project of the Environmental Protection Fund Grant Program for Park Services, ecoWEIR is a nature-based water system that filters incoming water from the municipal system. Ten signs throughout the park direct visitors along with an audioguide that discusses filtration, natural systems of water remediation, and the city’s water systems, reservoirs, and watersheds.

The accompanying digital campaign, “A Year of Public Water,” launched in June 2020 and will run through July of this year. It highlights the history of New York City’s water supply system, and explores ongoing issues of water quality, access, privatization, and infrastructure facing the city’s watersheds. The anchor of the campaign is “A Story About the NYC Drinking Watershed,” which begins in geologic time and ends today, when, it says, we face “constant threats to water and land as the [previous] presidential administration chipped away at environmental protections long fought.”

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Photo: Manuel Molina Martagon / Courtesy More Art

In a recent conversation with Metropolis, Mattingly—who lives in Brooklyn and teaches at the University of Hartford and Pratt Institute—said she hoped the project would stimulate “talk about stewardship. It matters what we do with our water, how people and wildlife are affected by it.”

New York City, she noted, has a public water system, unlike other places, whose systems are both public and private.

“As New York City residents, we can be stewards for the city’s water system,” she added.

Elizabeth Masella, senior public art coordinator for NYC Parks, said she hoped Public Water “gets people to think more about where their water comes from and to think about plants, which are a filtration system for water.”

“A lot of people take water for granted.  We hope they will think about the larger picture and how vital water is,” she added.

Public Water will be on display in Prospect Park through September 7.

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