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At South Boston’s Lawn on D, a peek into parks’ future

Visitors enjoyed the illuminated swings at the Lawn on D.
Visitors enjoyed the illuminated swings at the Lawn on D.(The Lawn on D)

To understand what’s great about the Lawn on D, you first have to understand what it lacks.

The so-called pop-up park in South Boston has proved wildly popular, to judge from attendance numbers and the volume of social media postings. Yet the Lawn on D has no topography; it sits on a flat, 2.7-acre rectangle of pavement and sod next to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. It has no history; the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority opened it last year, as an 18-month placeholder for land meant for a future expansion project.

And unlike the Boston Common and other celebrated historic parks, the Lawn on D makes no pretense of recreating a country landscape in the middle of the city. Since everything else about urban life is coming up for revision, the definition of "parks" is bound to evolve as well.

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The most conspicuous feature of Lawn on D, other than the bright blue and orange lawn chairs and big white tent over the bar, is an oversized swing set whose ring-shaped seats light up at night. Designed by the local firm Höweler and Yoon Architecture, the installation is a major draw: Search #lawnond on Instagram, and you'll find lots of happy people posing on glowing O's.

Instead of bucolic views, the Lawn on D offers a platform for concerts, a changing roster of eye-popping public art, and other intensive programming selected by a crew of top-notch arts and music curators. For a few days in May, the space hosted an inflatable maze called Pentalum; on Thursday, five inflatable white rabbits will take over. Last Friday, in celebration of Ringo Starr's 75th birthday, there was a viewing of "Yellow Submarine."

Credit where it's due: When Jim Rooney — until last week the head of the Convention Center Authority — described the Lawn on D at a meeting of Globe Opinion writers and editors a few years back, his idea sounded unworkable. "You laughed at me," Rooney said in a recent interview. His site, amid windswept industrial space, was hard to get to. The working title, "Lab on D," carried a whiff of trendy innovation-ese.

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But since then, a Seaport construction boom has drawn residents who hunger for common spaces. Bike-sharing and ride-hailing have cut transportation times for anyone with a phone.

Meanwhile, Rooney's park has shaped up as a real-life experiment: Can offering wine and beer support, rather than undermine, a cultural experience for responsible adults? Amid a global competition for talent, will young adults gravitate to cities with a pleasant, varied lifestyle? Can a vacant lot become a catalyst for a neighborhood, or even the city as a whole?

Kevin Essington, the Massachusetts state director of the Trust for Public Land, calls the Lawn on D a triumph of tactical urbanism — that is, the improvement of city life through cheap, cheerful innovations. "If people don't like them, you take them down," he says.

Cheap is relative: The Lawn on D's $1.1 million construction cost isn't much as parks go — particularly in comparison with the $23 million pricetag of "Cloud Gate," the iconic sculpture in Chicago's luxuriously landscaped Millennium Park.

Maintaining a flow of musicians and art projects year after year, though, involves a significant cost; the Convention Center Authority has budgeted $2.2 million for programming for spring through fall of 2015. New York's Bryant Park sustains itself largely through revenues from concessions, paid events, and corporate sponsorships, and Rooney suggests the Lawn on D could follow a similar strategy.

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This type of entrepreneurship unsettles advocates for free public parks. As it stands, the Lawn on D is sometimes closed for private functions, at a sticker price of $17,500 per day. Getting into Pentalum cost five bucks. For now, Lawn on D patrons seem to understand; the inflatable maze drew big crowds despite the charge.

Still, the future of the space is uncertain. Because the Convention Center expansion is now on hold, the pop-up park doesn't have to move anytime soon. Then again, Rooney took over last week as head of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, so keeping the Lawn on D going will be up to someone else.

What's clear is that the park satisfies a need — one that'll become more and more evident as the Seaport fills in, and as today's visitors rave about the experience on Twitter and Yelp. It's whimsical recreation for an accelerated era, and the public appetite for it is only going to grow.

Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @danteramos.

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