Atlantic Cities

The Rise of the Temporary City

The Rise of the Temporary City
Courtesy Peter Bishop

While artists, activists and event organizers have embraced the pop-up phenomenon, urban visionaries have remained overwhelmingly concerned with permanence.

That may be changing, according to The Temporary City, a new book by urban planner Peter Bishop and environmental scientist Lesley Williams that outlines a greater appreciation for immediate outcomes and temporary activities among planners, architects, developers and city officials.

“An alternative approach to master planning is beginning to emerge,” the authors write.

Temporary uses are nothing new. Nearly all of the 200 buildings of Chicago's magnificent 1893 White City came and went within a few years.* And the reclaiming of public space has been going on for more than half a century, in free zones like Copenhagen's Christiania, a squatters' settlement founded in 1971.

The continuing economic crisis has curtailed development funding and increased unemployment, particularly among the young and educated. Many cities have lost sizable chunks of population, leading to vast swathes of vacant property. And today's constant communications capabilities have made organizing events much simpler and quicker.

Combine these with the appeal of time-limited exclusivity and you have a boom in pop-ups, like the recent weekend-long mall on Cambridge's Newbury Street, or the 10-day food truck park, with furniture, plants and a performance space, in Surrey, England.


A stall at the Camden Lock Market. Photo credit: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

These enrich urban life, acknowledges Bishop, but it's the grander, longer-lasting temporary projects that have begun to alter thinking in the field. Eric Reynolds of Urban Space Management created London's Camden Lock Market a few decades ago. Initially a group of temporary cart stores and retail outlets in and around vacant warehouses, it has since become one of the city's most popular markets and helped rejuvenate an overlooked neighborhood.

At Boxpark, in London's Shoreditch neighborhood, sixty shipping containers have been turned into shops with three or five-year leases. Opened in November 2011 on a site that is expected to be under construction by 2016, it's been called the world's first temporary mall, and exists in large part due to the open-mindedness of the landowners.

In 2010, the British magazine Property Week created a national campaign with the Meanwhile Project to find temporary uses for vacant sites and buildings affected by the downturn. Landowners and developers have learned that temporary uses can establish place and brand very early, increase property value, reduce or eliminate security costs, create a revenue stream and launch a key conversation. “It allows you to start a constructive dialogue with a neighborhood, and you can use that to remove some of the long-term risks to your proposals,” says Bishop, who created London's design and planning office in 2006 and now works as a director at Allies and Morrison.


m-hotel. Courtesy: Tim Pyne Associates

Architects and planners are moving in a similar direction. London-based Tim Pyne Associates has designed the m-hotel, a stackable series of 500 square foot steel-framed living spaces for use on vacant sites for up to 10 years. And a book published last October, Temporary Architecture Now! adds Pritzker winners Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaas, and Zaha Hadid, among others, to the trend.

Even long-term master planning has been altered, as in London's Royal Docks project. What began as an ambitious, hundred-million dollar development required rethinking after the 2008 downturn. As deputy chief of the London Development Agency at the time, Bishop helped recalibrate the plan to incorporate temporary uses, including a retail caravanserai and a honey farm, as catalysts for a new long-term vision.

Such adaptation could proliferate. Architect Magazine says the many massive stalled development projects across American cities "resemble lunar craters, spreading over entire city blocks." Temporary uses are generally eco-friendly. And all variety of creative industries, from advertising to art, fashion to film, music, performing arts, and gaming, understand their appeal.

 

Washington, D.C., is ahead of the curve, with its Temporary Urbanism Initiative. In many cities, barriers to municipal implementation include the need for owner approval, the slow cost of permit acquisition and restrictive zoning laws.

 

Bishop admits it's too soon to tell whether temporary urbanism is a passing fad or a lasting paradigm shift within the field. He plans to watch two key metrics in the coming years: the extent to which major colleges and universities incorporate temporary concepts into their curriculum, and uptake among municipal officials.

 

When the tap is turned back on, some profit-minded developers are likely to chase away the honey farmers and start pouring concrete. In the meantime, temporary urbanism offers an innovative way to use vacant space, generate revenue and boost property values in a downturn. “It broadens the tools at your disposal and allows you to do things at a time when it's bloody difficult,” says Bishop.

 

* This post originally misstated the year Chicago's White City began.

 

Top photo credit: Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters

David Lepeska writes about urban issues and the environment for The New York Times, Monocle, and other publications. He lives in Chicago. All posts »

Join the Discussion