Sometimes the Simplest Ideas Make the Best Pop-Ups

Five blocks of a downtown Cleveland boulevard were temporarily transformed this spring.

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Pop Up Rockwell

What do Cleveland bike advocates, Homeland Security officials, and the administrators of the Northern Ohio Regional Sewer District have in common?

They all agree on the promise of a project called Pop-Up Rockwell, in which five blocks of a downtown Cleveland boulevard were temporarily transformed by the addition of a protected two-way cycle track, benches surrounded by flowers and grasses, and transit waiting stations complete with Wi-Fi.

The bike advocates liked the cycle track, of course. The sewer officials liked the way the plantings could trap and filter stormwater. And the Homeland Security guy? In this video, he talks about how he was thrilled by the atmosphere of safety the pop-up street created, by slowing traffic and attracting pedestrians to stop, sit, and provide what he calls “natural surveillance.” (Jane Jacobs used a more civilian-friendly term, “eyes on the street.”)

The project was designed by grad students from Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, with the aim of giving the public a concrete demonstration of what the streets of Cleveland could look like with just a little help.

Like many American cities with shrinking populations, Cleveland’s streets have what engineers call “excess capacity.” In other words, there aren’t as many cars on them as there used to be, and there’s a lot of free asphalt to play with.

“It’s time to look at how we use the streets,” says Jennifer Coleman, Cleveland Landmarks Commission chair. “It’s not just for cars anymore.”

The Pop-Up Rockwell project, which ran for one week in April, demonstrated what you could do with that space if you devoted it to something other than cars. And instead of looking at a piece of paper at a community meeting to guess at what the changes might mean, residents and downtown workers could see and feel for themselves.

“We wanted the project to feel like an experience in the future, during a typical work week,” says David Jurca, a Kent State instructor. Students and city officials got immediate feedback from people who were getting a taste of that future in real time and space.

It’s just a small beginning for a city that needs a lot of help. Organizers say that a longer pilot project is needed to truly assess the impact the changes might have. But you’ve got to love the way that bureaucrats and law enforcement officials are embracing the improvisational, spontaneous dynamic that pop-ups represent -- all in the name of making a better city.

H/T to the great blog Rustwire for the video.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.