Courtesy Krista Jahnke

Despite their co-option by marketing teams, the pop-up remains a sharp tool in the urban revitalization kit

When Toys “R” Us does a pop-up shop one can certainly make a case for the waning effectiveness of the genre. But despite their co-option by hipsters and marketing gurus, the temporary space remains a sharp tool in the urban revitalization kit. Why? As we well know, cities are starved for cash, their workers weary of bureaucratic obstacles and the word “no.” So they welcome the creative, energetic, and financially prudent efforts of grassroots organizations that have seen opportunity in crisis. Vacant lots, abandoned buildings, parking spaces, and even slivers of pavement, have been transformed by prudent partnerships between governments, artists, architects, and designers, and volunteers motivated to improve their own communities. The best of these efforts are designed to enhance daily life not promote product or “lifestyle.”

1. Transparente Kerk (Transparent Church), various locations in the Netherlands
Maria Popova (@brainpicker) alerted us to what has to be the most unexpected use of a pop-up: The Transparent Church (or Transparante Kerk). Installed in the Netherlands, the structure’s material jibes with its philosophy: sermons are less traditional than, um, transparent. The 30 or so attendees the church accommodates are not preached to, rather they’re encouraged to openly discuss life’s important questions with one another.

2. The Big Hole, Seattle, WA
As part of their strategy of neighborhood improvement, Go Oak Cliff, a small group of residents from the Dallas suburb drew attention to the codes they were violating to get the city to reconsider what was on the books. A similar tactic was taken in Seattle, where a three-acre empty lot--vacant for so long it was known to locals as the “Big Hole”--was reimagined as Boing Boing, reportedly “an awesome and ginormous play pit.”

3. Proxy, San Francisco, CA
In 2005, Envelope Architecture + Design won first prize in the Octavia Boulevard Housing Design Competition. Then the recession killed the project.  But Envelope got a unique consolation prize: the opportunity to transform the vacant lots they’d originally designed housing for into Proxy, “a vibrant focal point for commerce and community.” Just around the corner from Hayes Valley Farm (built atop a felled freeway), Proxy now houses a little village of local businesses including Ritual Coffee and Smitten Ice Cream, and the recently opened Supenkuche Beer Garden.

4. Play Streets, New York, NY
For decades, kids transformed the streets into their own personal playgrounds. Now, in this era of “stranger danger” and decreasing resources for recreation spaces, the idea has been reborn through a partnership between Transportation Alternatives, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the NYC Strategic Alliance for Health. This past summer, the group worked with 11 community organizations to help create play streets around the city, many in neighborhoods with disparate rates of activity related diseases, like obesity.

5. Meeting Bowls, Times Square, New York, NY
Defying all assumptions, seating of any kind has accomplished the ostensibly impossible (and some might argue, dubious) task of getting people to have a seat in Times Square. Even the cheap folding chairs scattered around by the Department of Transportation last summer encouraged congregation and conversation, even in triple digit temperatures. Designed by Spanish firm mmmm, the latest street furniture may scream “theme park” in a space already derided for having turned into one but they’ve been quite popular with tourists and locals alike.

6. The Walklet, San Francisco, CA
Ubiquitous in San Francisco is the Walklet, a modular system designed to extend sidewalks into the parking lane. Another terrific example of “user-generated urbanism” by REBAR who created PARKing Day way back in 2005, the Walklet not only looks (and sounds) cute, it is radically less expensive than permanent sidewalk improvements, which can typically run over $1 million per block. They’re popping up nationally, from Portland to Brooklyn.

7. Picnurbia, Vancouver, BC
Variations on the theme of the walklet/parklet abound. Picnurbia joins the long list of irritating urban/suburban monikers (Metroburbia, Retroburbia, et al) but we’ll forgive that because it’s been so successful at creating a playful place for people to gather downtown.

8. Berlin-Tempelhof Airport, Berlin, Germany
Sometimes the best programming is no programming at all. That’s what happened when the city of Berlin decided to transform this abandoned, Nazi-era terminal building into the city’s largest park. As IDEO’s Beau Trincia points out in his own blog, New Public Domain:

“Cash-strapped Berlin has forgone the expensive landscaping and programming of the space and left it to the people to make the most of this wide open acreage not 15 minutes bike ride from the city center. And if our experience of the park on a Pfings holiday Monday is any evidence, the people are making the most of a completely unprogrammed experience to make it a vibrant public treasure.”

About the Author

Allison Arieff

Allison Arieff writes a column about design and architecture for The New York Times and is editorial director of SPUR.

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