By Barbara Nelson: I have always loved cities – the density, the motion, the mix of people and purposes. As an architect my business is buildings, but I am perhaps more interested in how people use the public space that forms among and between buildings. From village to metropolis, public space is where we come together as a society. How we treat our common ground and what we do there is an indicator of social heath.

As a designer, I am more drawn to problem solving than to style. As a human, I share a concern for the planet. Cities themselves are critical to the preservation of open space for agriculture and biodiversity. So I am drawn to the challenge of preserving our cities as sustainable and healthy places to live. A healthy city includes neighborhoods of diverse character and culture, but if even one neighborhood struggles the whole city suffers.

Abandonment of buildings is an extension of our “throw away” culture. Vacancy eats away at a city like cancer. It weakens a neighborhoods resilience and resistance to other problems. Behaviors decline, property values decline and the physical health of neighbors is impacted. So, when asked to consider a prevalent urban issue, I immediately focused on vacancy.

Breathing Lights does not shine a light on the vacancy problem. It enables our vacant buildings to shine a light on us, to call to us for answers. The installation will draw people to public space they may not normally visit, meeting people they may not normally meet. Breathing Lights is theatrical in nature, it will set the stage for creative response, problem solving, and perhaps difficult conversations about the interdependence of society, the cites we live in and the broader impacts of our choices.


Barbara Nelson, a long-time Troy resident and architect with a strong belief that community design and public art can be catalysts to better disadvantaged communities and neighborhoods, in October became executive director of TAP Inc., the Capital Region’s Community Design Center founded in 1969. TAP’s portfolio is focused on urban revitalization, architectural preservation, sustainability, fair housing and removal of architectural barriers. For 24 years she served her alma mater as an architect and planner in the Campus Planning and Facilities Design office at RPI . For six of those years she taught courses as an adjunct in the School of Architecture. She has served on the Troy Planning Commission under three administrations. Her work with Transport Troy promotes complete streets and urban trails in Troy. She co-founded Troy Alley Action to facilitate the reclamation of blighted public spaces with participatory public art projects.