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Pop up spaces won’t save our cities, but here’s 5 reasons why they’re still important

Spoiler alert: pop ups are not going to save our cities. But here’s the thing: neither is architecture, or permanent infrastructure. The fact is, we need both. I read a very insightful blog this week on the limitations of temporary urbanism through Failed Architecture, in response to the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam. This article critiques the shortfalls of temporary projects, which highlights for me some of the common misunderstandings about the role of temporary projects.

Some misconceptions about pop up spaces

1. Temporary vs Permanent. Pop ups are not meant to replace other city-making practices. A pop up community garden should not be compared to a permanent town squares, buildings and public realm projects. They have a different role and function.

2. Pop up is not the same as bottom up. Temporary projects can be a useful collaboration tool, if done with vision and purpose, but they can also just be colour and movement. Bottom-up city-making is when citizens are involved in shaping and making decisions about neighbourhoods. This may or may not involve pop ups. Bottom-up processes are critical for urban resilience and creating places that people love. Pop up is useful, but can also just be marketing. 

3. Pop ups have limited impact. This depends on how you measure impact. The physical outcomes of tactical urbanism projects are often low-cost, sometimes unremarkable. However the social capital built by local citizens connecting and making decisions about their neighbourhood is powerful and long term.

4. Pop ups are not scalable. Temporary projects scale horizontally. They operate at the neighbourhood scale and can therefore easily scale street by street, block by block. New initiatives such as The Neighbourhood Project are helping local government to scale up tactical urbanism by cutting red tape and providing tools and training for citizens.

Trends aside, here's five reasons why pop ups are important

It will be no surprise that I am a big proponent of tactical urbanism and the role of bottom up, local and sometimes temporary projects play in shaping better, more inclusive cities. And while they are not a replacement for permanent infrastructure, they offer a number of benefits for citizens and city-makers beyond their temporary life, that we should embrace. These include:

1. Making better decisions.

Temporary projects enable city-makers to test ideas, before making financial and political commitments. The tech and design industries embraced user-testing decades ago, the built environment professions are slow to catch on. By testing design ideas in the real world, with real humans, we can find new data, information and local stories about places. This then enable designers and decision makers to make better decisions.

2. Changing Behaviour

A lot of well intentioned projects get grid locked in NIMBYism and negative community feedback. Short term projects can change perception and behaviour. We need to look no further than Times Square New York to see how a temporary project changed ideas and unlocked an idea that had been stuck in planning for 40 years.

In a recent project in Melbourne we had the opportunity to close a street, and build a temporary park to test a concept for a new park. The concept was initially opposed by some vocal members of the community. However the park trial attracted over 200 community volunteers (we had 8 paint brushes). Neighbours who had lived side by side for a decade had the first opportunity to know each other, and the trial resulted in overwhelmingly positive feedback from the local stakeholders.

3. Helping Neighbours Connect

Social connection in cities is rapidly declining. This is especially true in Australian cities where 1 in 3 people don’t know their neighbour, and loneliness is now on par with heart disease and smoking as a cause of premature death. Local neighbourhood improvement projects and volunteering are key ways to help neighbours connect.

4. Inspiring Community Leadership.

While community engagement has come a long way, your average citizen is still unlikely to be involved in key decisions being made about neighbourhoods. Small scale projects enable

local residents to respond to their self-identified needs, and make real decisions that improve their daily lives.

5. Keeping cities evolving 

Cities are in a constant state of flux, and therefore, we like control. Physical changes to infrastructure are easier to plan, cultural and behavioural changes are harder to predict. Tactical projects enable a safe and lower-risk environment in which to experiment with new ideas, or changes to the urban landscape. They help us to keep cities dynamic, evolving and relevant.

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