Environmental Artist Stacy Levy to Bring Green Space to Cuyahoga Falls

by Grace Carter

According to environmental artist Stacy Levy, nature does not end where the city begins. Levy was commissioned to create a unique piece of land art for downtown Cuyahoga Falls through a National Endowment for the Arts-funded Our Town grant. The project embraces Cuyahoga Falls’ deep and historic connection to the river.

Levy is the perfect artist for the job given her interest in urban rivers. She grew up in Philadelphia, a city surrounded by two rivers. The setting of a river flowing through the urban fabric is especially compelling to her. Levy’s work explores how we change our rivers with the infrastructures we created on their banks. Many cities were founded because rivers provided vital resources like drinking water, food, and transportation, as well as a way to flush away waste. Rivers have changed in their human-directed use–from shipping and fishing to hydroelectric water power and large-scale irrigation. 

Recently, recreational activities that involve rivers are making cities more desirable. “We have switched from turning our backs on the river to turning around and embracing the river—this is a great part of modern urban life for some people. More individuals are enjoying urban rivers now. That’s really exciting,” said Levy. 

In order to understand Levy’s art, it is important to consider rainfall. When rain falls onto a surface, it naturally wants to sink into the ground. When it lands on a parking lot, it has no chance to soak in and instead flows across the asphalt surface, carrying pollutants into nearby rivers through runoff. The contamination runoff from parking lots is detrimental to waterways. Additionally, large amounts of runoff all coming at once is not good for the geomorphology of the river and erodes the shorelines. Levy hopes we can find a different way of living with our urban rivers. The banks of rivers should be green, not gray; the shorelines should be vegetated, not concrete or asphalt. The vegetation on the shoreline helps hold the river in place, slowing down the erosive action of runoff with a matrix of roots and soil. Unfortunately, our cities are not built to accommodate the rivers–they are built to accommodate us. “We want control over nature, but that has not turned out to be a good idea,” Levy says.

Levy believes that we need a new way of living with nature that is more sensitive to nature’s needs. She thinks Cuyahoga Falls is a great place to start because it has the river as an amazing asset and it is an energetic and effective town that knows there is a better way of doing things.

Levy’s Our Town installation will create a buffer zone between the Weller Court parking lot and the Cuyahoga River to help remove contaminants. The piece is a series of swales in the asphalt to make a filtering system that is functional and beautiful. The native plants that Levy plans to add into the swales will also be good for other species. “When you add plant species that support pollinators, those essential pollinators will come,” Levy noted.

Levy believes her installation is a “postage-stamp-sized project” that can help, in a very small way, to protect the river from some pollutants. Through this project, Levy hopes more people who are building or repairing parking lots will see that they can do things differently. “Art can’t make all the changes, but art can suggest changes,” she said. Over time, we have put the act of parking at the front and center of our urban and suburban spaces because we want our cars to be close and convenient for us. Levy believes that parking lots are the best place to start this act of sharing space with urban nature. Humans do not need to take up the lion’s share of open space with their resting cars. And, there is less and less of a need for parking due to more people using bikes and ride-sharing apps. Levy hopes engineers and developers will see her art piece and feel inspired to give nature a place in the landscapes they are developing.

Levy is always thinking about pedestrians. What types of urban spaces are made for pedestrians? What can make walking more fun and interesting? On Front Street, her piece will be a green interlude. Native grasses will reflect the different seasons with their changing colors. The piece may even attract some different bird species. It will be a cooler respite for people walking down a hot linear sidewalk. There will also be a bike-charging station, making this corner of the parking lot more friendly for people who are not driving cars but are getting around by bike or by foot. 

Creating land art is an extremely collaborative process. Levy works with engineers, ecologists, horticulturists, zoologists, and more. It takes a collaborative team of different knowledge bases to make ecological art happen. The teams meet often and visit the sites to look at the possibilities together. The process always involves compromise. As the artist, sometimes what Levy wants to do is mitigated by what can feasibly be done. She cannot have a fixed idea of “the masterpiece.” There is a lot of kneading the idea through different disciplines. The most successful projects demand that everyone involved needs to be open-minded, even if they don’t always agree.

Completion of Levy’s projects is never a hard line. Her projects take a long time. Chronology is not as important to her because the projects have many phases. In the beginning of the work, the planning of the project is a more human-based process. But when the piece is installed, nature begins to interact with it. These phases create a very ongoing experience.

When Levy is trying to get a sense of the personality of the city she is creating art for, she believes that community engagement events are helpful. Short-term, mini projects are an effective way to hear about what people think of a place. For example, Levy did a project in a parking lot between Front Street and the river that involved painting to show the flow of rainwater. She worked with a lot of people from the city and schools. These small projects with people working together also help people feel more ownership of the pieces. She is hoping to do a project that involves planting with people.

Levy has been involved with another NEA project in 2018. She created a topo map in Fayetteville, Arkansas that shows runoff on a hilly street using road striping thermoplastic (which is usually used to designate driving lanes and parking spots). With that material, she showed the topography of the actual street for five blocks, creating a life-sized topographical map drawn with contour lines adhered to the asphalt of the street. The artwork gave a visual and spatial connection to the Arts Corridor in Fayetteville, creating an artful walk linking the public library and the Walton Arts Center with the downtown area.

Levy recently finished helping with a project in Austin, Texas, where three local artists created a floating wetland. She is also working on a commission for New York City parks along the East River. It is a series of pavers that depict the diatoms that live in the East River. “It is like walking on a microscope’s slide,” she explains. She also recently finished a temporary project on the East River in Brooklyn consisting of giant pink floating flowers with petals that rise and fall to show the tide.

Levy’s environmental art installation in Cuyahoga Falls will be completed in the fall of 2022.