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The resourceful city, part 1: Reprogramming buildings

Referring to someone as resourceful is high praise. The word very succinctly creates a narrative of character for the individual, communicating agility, ingenuity and ability. Resourceful is not a term we often think of when describing a city’s character. We usually see only a fragment of the word as we measure the resources consumed by a city instead of the resourcefulness applied to its built environment.


The Hub, London--from warehouse to startup incubator<br />Image coutesy of alterspace ltd

Click image above to view slideshow.


Resourcefulness is a quality that we instinctively align to a more rural or laboring pursuit, the tradition of “making do” with available materials and limited resources to meet a need. Just as the migration of rural populations to urban centers has transformed cities, a migration of more fundamental human skills as well as using the material at hand—our buildings, spaces and objects—in resourceful ways are needed to address some of the challenges we face.

The need for resourcefulness comes from two fronts. We are realizing that we live in a time of finite resources; whether financial, material or spatial, the bounty years have become something of a memory. At the same time, we live in an era that requires agility to respond to shifting economic and social realities. These two seemingly opposed fronts—the rigidity of resource constraint and the agile needs of a society in flux— create the platform for a new resourcefulness, for ways in which the hardware of the built environment we inherited can be reprogrammed to respond to our changing needs.

Changing economies are the most obvious catalysts for shifts in the built environment. Our Main Streets will always experience an ebb and flow of commercial storefront changes, and organizations such as Australia’s Renew Newcastle have shown wizardlike abilities to reprogram empty commercial areas for new creative uses.

A particular challenge exists, however, in dealing with structures that were created for one particular use or in direct response to a changing economic pattern yet sit empty once the economics change again. The warehouses, mills and factory shops that were once icons of urban industry and business have morphed with the times. When not being fragmented into housing units, their business functionality has followed that of the larger city, transforming single-industry spaces to hives of numerous small ventures. We have already shown a solid understanding of reprogramming our “heavy stock” buildings toward the direction in which the economy is moving, not where it has been.

But with explosion of the big-box stores in the ’90s, a new, cheap, often prefab style of box buildings began popping up—quick builds to address quick opportunities in the marketplace. Big boxes were, and are, monuments to shifting consumer and economic patterns, but as those patterns changed and moved, areas were left with these empty buildings, more memorial than monument when the business inside leaves.

As Julia Christensen documented in her 2008 book Big Box Reuse, a largely grassroots resourcefulness around the country saw the opportunity to meet different needs with the abandoned structures: Wal-Marts were reborn as churches, empty Home Depots became guitar stores and elementary schools, and a K-Mart found new life as the Spam Museum.

Also reaching a crescendo in the ’90s were new builds of convenience stores, slotted into high-traffic urban and suburban areas. Again, as the high-traffic areas moved elsewhere, the stores moved, and new buildings were built in those areas, leaving the remnants of the past behind. On the West Coast, the Circle K franchise has become a model of both this shift and the reuse and reprogramming of the former stores. Paho Mann has documented numerous resourceful techniques used to reuse abandoned Circle Ks in his Re-inhabited Circle Ks project, showing former stores being reused as tuxedo-rental stores, Mexican restaurants, dry cleaners and much more.

Even something as seemingly disconnected from the built environment as consumer technology shapes the future of our physical landscape and, in turn, offers opportunity for reuse. From record shops to bookstores, commercial storefronts have marked our changing buying habits as shop windows change, empty and fill to meet the interests of passing consumers.

A higher-stakes bet is placed on buildings created to house what eventually proves to be temporary technology, and the buildings in turn represent only temporary functionality. Drive-thru film-processing “Fotomat” kiosks are perhaps the best example of the architectural extension of a changing consumer relationship with technology and its impact on the built environment.

Built as mini structures to offer the ultimate convenience of drive-thru film processing, the greater convenience of digital photos with no processing at all made them obsolete. Interestingly, while its use has changed, the style of service has remained in the kiosk’s DNA, from drive-thru coffee kiosks to tobacco and key cutting kiosks.

When looking at examples of agile reuse and reprogramming, the difference is clear between the potential gained from employing a resourceful approach instead of the more usual resource-heavy response of destroy and rebuild. Reprogramming and reuse is not only a sustainable approach—as the saying goes, the greenest building is the one already built—but also a responsive one, reducing the gap between social and economic change, and the ability of the built environment to respond to those changes. Reprogramming is more than just reuse of an existing building; it is an effective strategy to deal with the impact of cultural and economic changes that occur more quickly than the built environment does. Reprogramming enables the built environment of the city to be agile, to respond to highly fluid changes.

Reuse and reprogramming have as much to do with economics as they do with creative energy at work. The question is whether, collectively, these initiatives will coalesce as valid options to inspire others faced with a new build if they wish to chip away at the limited resources or be resourceful through reuse and reprogramming—creating the new software to upgrade the old hardware.


Scott Burnham is a social entrepreneur and creative strategist focused on new approaches to design and the city. His recent urban design projects include Urban Play, created for the city of Amsterdam, and Bairro Criativo, created for Porto, Portugal. He is the author of Finding the Truth in Systems: In Praise of Design-Hacking, Urban Play and The Urban Guide for Alternate Use, and is a fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, London. Currently based in London, he is relocating to Boston soon.

Editorial note: Scott Burnham is the curator for Reprogramming the City: Opportunities for Urban Infrastructure, on view at BSA Space in the summer of 2013.

Top image: Circle K as Mexican Restaurant by Paho Mann