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The resourceful city, part 3: Reprogramming infrastructure

Potential for reuse is a hard thing to quantify. The Dutch Pavilion of last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale exhibited a vast fictional cityscape representing all the vacant building space available throughout the Netherlands. In Brooklyn, New York, posters are placed at vacant lots throughout the borough informing the public that there are 596 acres of dormant public space ready to be activated. Revealing the opportunity of empty buildings and space in these ways is powerful but fails to embrace the full range of resources available for reuse in the city.

The High Line, New York. Photo via

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To fully consider the potential of reprogramming the existing city, we need to consider all material components of the city. The most functional elements of our urban infrastructure are among the most overlooked elements in the city’s physical landscape yet hold unique potential. Much is made of an abandoned space in the city that could be put to better use but not of the fencing surrounding the space. We talk of the opportunity of an empty building but not of the scaffolding outside or the traffic barriers in front of it. It is significant that one of the most celebrated urban reuse projects of the last decade wasn’t a building or public space but a structure of steel, concrete and broken rail track, reborn as New York’s High Line.

The High Line is a model example of how reprogramming the physical infrastructure of the city can be a resourceful strategy to address the way our use of the physical city changes over time. Buildings and shared spaces of the city change in appearance and functionality as the economy and social demographics change around them. Factories become designer loft apartments as society’s needs change, and their surrounding industrial lots become public gardens for the residents. The material infrastructure of the city is part of the same arc of history, yet we frequently regard these physical components as disposable or easily ignored ephemera.

A truly holistic approach to reprogramming the city needs to embrace all its elements and find the potential for reuse in all its objects. We already employ this sensibility in our daily behavior. Anyone who has hung a jacket on a piece of fencing in the city or placed a coffee cup on a flat surface near a bus stop has appreciated the city’s infrastructure for the potential that it holds, rather than only the function for which it was proscribed.

In a city that has fought the sea for generations to reclaim bits of land from it, Amsterdamers have a long tradition of making the most of every space and structure in their city.

The traffic bollards in the narrow strip outside the historic Felix Meritis institution for arts, culture and science tell their history through their weathered granite surface. Over time, they have provided a place for visitors to the storied institution to hitch their horses and rest their bicycles, and have shielded the building’s frontage from passing cars. Yet Felix Meritis also houses a grand cafe, with little room between the building and the street for an outdoor seating area. So, each morning, a ritual takes place as a series of donut-shaped wooden boards are placed over each bollard, with chairs set at each one, and the otherwise forgotten patch outside the building becomes an outdoor cafe.

Amsterdam’s streets are not the only areas of the city to have changed over time. The seafaring industry in Amsterdam, as in many port cities, has modernized and changed greatly in the last century, yet the ghosts of the heavy infrastructure of the past remain in its ports. Faced with a monstrous yet derelict crane gantry, decaying since its last use in the 1950s, Amsterdamers applied the same principle to the steel structure as they do to the rest of the land: Make best use of what is there.

Ontwerpgroep Trude Hooykaas’s Kraanspoor three-story office building is built on top of the abandoned crane structure. With a name literally meaning “crane track,” Kraanspoor’s once-derelict foundation stretches 885 feet across the waterway of the Ij River, the city’s main shipping route leading to the sea.

The updated use of the old structure not only reprograms is functionality but also forms a link between the modern city and its history. Realizing that the narrative of the city is held as much in its physical structures as it is in its residents’ tales, Ontwerpgroep Trude Hooykaas retained much of the original structure to preserve an element of the city’s shipping heritage. The original stairwell’s functionality has been updated to house elevators and emergency stairs. The catwalks once used by crane operators have become fire escapes, while the original space below the massive structure has been repurposed as a storage facility.

It is not only in the decay that opportunity can be found. Hong Kong is a city whose original physical history as a trade port has given way to the concrete and steel landscape of a global financial hub. Yet with its density that, at times, makes the urban landscape of Blade Runner seem fairly spacious, almost a great deal is required of every inch and object of Hong Kong, and its residents make maximum use of it. The malleability of the physical city in the hands of its residents is resourceful and inspiring. Kiosks selling DVDs or dumplings—at times, both—are wedged in the narrowest of spaces between buildings, while railings double as display stands for street vendors.

Taking its cue from the informal reuse of existing space in the city, The Cascade by Edge Design Institute, is a structure of single and multiple seating areas with trees and small table areas woven together to fit at the side of the existing stairway. Connecting Arbuthnot Road and Wyndham Street at the Centrium in Central, Hong Kong, The Cascade offers rare moments of pause in the austere and dense surrounding district, the reprogramming of the stairway offers new possibilities in one of the most overlooked and common of urban infrastructures.

There exists equal opportunity in the urban infrastructure that bridges the old and the new, as represented by New York’s recent embrace of the potential its scaffolding passageways, or “sidewalk sheds,” hold.

With estimates that there are 6,000 of these scaffolding structures in the city, representing more than 1 million linear feet, the possibilities for reprogramming these spaces offers immense benefit to pedestrians and normally obscured businesses alike.

Following a design competition for their reuse in which 164 submissions were received from 28 countries, it was decided that the next life for the structures would be as “Urban Umbrellas” - light, colorful passageways, designed by Young-Hwan Choi and developed by Sarrah Khan PE, LEED AP and Andrés Cortés AIA, LEED AP of Agencie Group.

In a press release announcing the winners of the contest, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg elevated the value of reprogramming functional infrastructure as more than just visual improvements but as evidence of the city’s “entrepreneurial spirit.”

Bloomberg’s statement is more than PR hyperbole. If the statistical analysis of the opportunity and enterprise represented by the available buildings and space of the city were applied to the rest of its material components, we would realize that there is exponentially more structure and material available to serve as raw material for reuse than previously imagined.

To serve as both documentation of informal approaches taken toward reprogramming the infrastructure of the city and as a catalyst for DIY urban reuse, I created the Urban Guide for Alternate Use. The website has become a platform for people to share their reuse of urban infrastructure—old phone boxes used as tree planters, signs repurposed as musical instruments, billboards becoming swings and many other examples provide a window into the reworking of urban design happening worldwide. The structures of the city no longer seem to be forgotten elements in our urban history but active objects whose stories are constantly being updated.

A palette of future potential is beginning to emerge as cities embrace adaptive reuse of existing buildings, repurposing space in the city to serve alternate functions and reprogramming existing infrastructure for expanded use in the city. The projects, achievements and functionalities are as varied as the cities they appear in. Real change begins to show, however, when it appears in the thinking at high levels. When individuals such as New York City’s Planning Commissioner, Amanda M. Burden, observed during the Urban Umbrellas project that “Design is all about rethinking what we already know,” the change seems to be taking hold.

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: Scaffolding passageways transformed into 'Urban Umbrellas,' New York. New York City Department of Buildings