A piece of chalk in a child’s hands is a powerful tool. With it, that child has the power to transform a city’s sidewalks, parking lots and alleys into platforms of possibilities. Whether creating hopscotch grids, goal markers, bases or canvases, to that child, the shared spaces and surfaces of the city aren’t the end result of someone else’s activities, but the beginning of hers.
We lose a lot as we grow up; the loss of imagination, play and involvement with our shared space is among the most regrettable. At some point in our lives, the empty lot next door no longer represents a realm of possibility. It’s just an empty lot.
Our loss of being able to play more freely with the possibilities of space in the city robs us of more than just our sense of adventure. It robs us of space itself. From the seemingly anonymous areas of underpasses to alleyways and abandoned lots, the city holds vastly more space than most realize. Even the densest of American cities contains space to be unlocked—in New York, the borough of Brooklyn alone is estimated to have almost 600 acres of empty space ripe to be reprogrammed for better use.
Activating these lost areas of the city nears urban alchemy, creating new space from the existing terrain—and an increasing number of people, teams, practices and collectives are stepping forward to do just that.
One such team is London’s Assemble Studio. For a city like London, with such a formidable cultural reputation, its history of urban planning has lacked a similar level of sophistication. Several bridges and “flyovers” cut crassly through areas already struggling to be hospitable to its residents, creating dead concrete chambers beneath them. Assemble decided that one space beneath the A12 motorway in the Hackney Wick area of the city had more value than an echo chamber for the cars passing above.
Earlier this summer, working quickly and cheaply, the Assemble team constructed “Folly for a Flyover,” a structure of sloping seats to create a public venue for films and concerts, complete with a cafe to provide a local meeting place for coffee and boat rides on the neighboring waterway. Using reclaimed materials that, in turn, are disassembled and reused at the end of its run, the temporary structure offers a window into the potential that such normally wasted space holds in the life of the city.
Using an archetype of ignored urban space, Assemble not only animated and created a new space for London’s residents but also ultimately celebrated the character of the forgotten space itself. “Standing improbably in the forgotten concrete world beneath the flyover,” the Guardian wrote of the project, “the place is powerful…. Usually, it is also desolate and possibly scary, but by putting stuff and events there with a certain wit and spirit, Assemble have revealed its weird beauty.”
Another breed of lost space in the city is frequently overlooked and ignored because of its decidedly functional nature: the streets and plazas of the city’s commercial districts and financial centers. These normally buzzing areas become ghost towns on the weekends and most evenings, their lighting, infrastructure and proximity going to waste in the off-hours.
Manu Rapoport of Argentina’s Designo Patagonia sees these spaces as platforms for play and gathering during their off-hours. To activate the temporarily empty spaces, he created “Plaza Móvil Street Park”. Created particularly for cities lacking adequate public space for play and gathering, as is the case in Rapoport’s native Buenos Aires, Plaza Móvil is a mobile “kit” containing equipment, games and street furniture to turn any street into a temporary alternative park. Rapoport created Plaza Móvil to act as both a method for animating empty spaces and as an advocacy tool for convincing local authorities to briefly close streets for the benefit of local communities. It is an idea that is getting attention: Rapoport and his Plaza Móvil won second prize in last year’s Philips Livable Cities Awards.
The resourcefulness at work in reclaiming and reprogramming the paved spaces of the city is also transforming the city’s dirt lots and nondescript scrub patches. With the recent momentum behind guerrilla gardening and urban farming, the smallest empty street planters to the largest brownfield sites find themselves called into service to meet our most basic need—growing food.
One of the most recent groups to emerge as advocates for reclaiming lost urban land for urban farming is New York’s 596 Acres. Taking a guerrilla campaigning approach to urban farming, the group has tagged numerous abandoned lots with posters and contact numbers of local agencies in an effort to gain support for a local bill that would allow the city to turn the empty lots over to local residents for community farms. Although their goals may seem like a long shot to some, the idea of creating a network of microgrowing areas throughout the borough is a powerful suggestion of the potential and pragmatism that reprogramming empty lots represents.
Ultimately, what defines the potential of space in the city is perception. Reprogramming the shadowy areas under bridges, the off-peak city centers and the urban scrub lots unlocks both the potential of the space and the collective potential of our imagination. Re-engaging our youthful perception of the city as a malleable landscape empowers us to realize, as the child with the piece of chalk once did, that the currently dead spaces surrounding us aren’t the end of those spaces, but the beginning.
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: Folly for a Flyover by Assemble, London