A permanent home for temporary initiatives

Oli Mould argues it could be time planners embraced new temporary and ‘pop-up’ urbanism initiatives as an ongoing force for sustainable urban renewal

Work in progress on a 72 Hour Urban Action project in Tel Aviv. Photo by Mor Arkadir.

There is no getting away from it; creativity is now firmly entrenched in urban policy. The rapid deindustrialisation that much of the western world experienced in the latter stages of the 20th century saw many local, urban and national governments looking for alternative ways to rejuvenate dilapidated urban centres.

This was catalysed by the popularity of ideas such as the ‘creative class’ by Richard Florida. This saw creativity become a central tenant in urban development policies, with a whole range of global north cities, from Sydney to Sheffield and from Copenhagen to Cincinnati, enacting various policies designed to attract talented and creative people to their city.

However, the clamour for the ‘creative class’ by these cities has valorised and normalised a particular view of creativity. It is a view that is focused on very specific types of urban environments (café cultures and a night time economy), and a narrow band of creative practices, namely those that conform to capitalist accumulation, such as the creative industries and cultural consumption.

The ubiquity of the ‘creative city’ policies purported by the world-renowned urbanists is, some scholars argue, the latest iteration of neoliberal urban governance. They are the ‘quick policy fix’ that urban councils are looking for in order to boost their civic image and their re-election prospects. The uptake of these policies is therefore creating a homogenous urban policy landscape with more cities enacting the same policies to attract creatives to their city. For example, the preponderance of cultural quarters in the UK is increasing, with more and more cities and large towns writing cultural quarters into their regeneration development strategies. Despite the rhetoric of a cultural quarter bringing vibrancy and a creative ‘milieu’ to a city, the more they are replicated, the less vibrant and ‘different’ they become.

‘The popularity and chronic over-use of the term ‘pop-up urbanism’ to describe temporary
urban activity in derelict spaces
is also testament to the viral-like spread of these types of practices, but also speaks to their economic viability as a regeneration
Perhaps as a ‘backlash’ or reaction to the ever-increasing formulaic approach to creative urban development, recently there have been small-scale, community-led creative interventions in urban environments that have gained popularity. Some that I have experienced first hand include the 72 Hour Urban Action in Tel Aviv, where planners, residents and architects all work together for three days and three nights to redesign a micro-local area (such as the courtyard of a tower block or an overgrown allotment) to the benefit of the local community. The results are often temporary (although some are permanent, depending on their popularity) areas of leisure and/or play and bring vitality to an otherwise bland, uninspiring or ‘dead’ space.

Also, in Copenhagen, in the recently initiated Ørestad development, the financial crisis has put a halt to many of the proposed residential and office developments. While alternative funding is being sourced, the derelict, half-built up land is being used for ‘plug-and-play‘ sites, where containers full of sports equipment are deposited and used in temporary football and basketball courts, as well as an in-line skate track and even a parkour training park. These temporary playgrounds are utilised by the local residents in an otherwise barren area, far removed from the main city of Copenhagen.

Finally, Play Me, I’m Yours is an art work by Luke Jerram which involved placing pianos in city centres, initially in Birmingham, UK for anyone to play. The popularity of the ‘street pianos’ has led to them being placed in 22 cities so far, with five more in 2012.

These are just three examples of a plethora of artistic, creative and individualistic interventions into the urban fabric in attempts to enliven the city beyond the prescription of the formulaic creative city (see also UrbanSubversion on Twitter for other examples of individuals playfully interacting with the urban environment).

Despite the grass roots nature of these instances of intervention, there are examples of them spreading around the globe to multiple cities in much the same way as traditional creative city policies are. The street pianos scheme, as we have already seen has spread to dozens of cities. Also, a ‘social furniture’ intervention called Bubbleware originated in Sydney and has now spread to San Francisco and Austin in the US.

There is also the argument that urban subcultures, such as parkour, skateboarding, yarn-bombing and urban exploration, while they started out as individuals reacting (often illegally) to the capitalist usage of the city, are now global phenomena, some of which are used to advertise mega-events and global brands, and indeed contribute to the economic revival and redevelopment of cities. The popularity and chronic over-use of the term ‘pop-up urbanism’ to describe temporary urban activity in derelict spaces is also testament to the viral-like spread of these types of practices, but also speaks to their economic viability as a regeneration quick-fix.

However, is it time now to think about these interventions are simply more than temporary? In and of themselves, the temporality of these kinds of urban actions is key to their success. Rather than attempting to argue against the temporariness as individual interventions, is there now a point where the possibility of temporary or pop-up urbanism needs to be written into public urban policy?

Planned urban spaces leave little room for experimentation in anyway — it’s the planners’ way or the high way. The success of these artistic and creative interventions has highlighted how important experimentation with the urban landscape is, yet the new cultural quarters, shopping malls, office parks, and media cities of this world are leaving little room for spaces of play. Financial pressures are causing real estate investment to squeeze as much profit from the spaces as possible, and in so doing restrict the possibility of such urban interventions (although they can never be irradiated completely).

On the other extreme of course, there should no top-down governance attempts to curate these interventions; this flies in the face of their raison d’être. But there is a middle ground that can be occupied. By allowing planners and architects the opportunity to create rough edges, design spaces that don’t have any specific commercial operation and to facilitate places that encourage engagement; cities will become places less about security concerns and consumerism, and more about citizenship, creativity and play.


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