Fleeting Design

Scott Page's picture
If you've ever worked in distressed communities, you've faced the dilemma that there simply is no private market for what you want to see built.  You can chip away at the problem of vacant land with thoughtful affordable housing developments or, if you're lucky, a new recreation center but by and large, large amounts of vacancy remain and impact the psyche of those that live nearby.  So working closely with residents, and really listening, has sparked a whole new sub-discipline in our world of urban planning and design - temporary use. 

The shrinking cities movement shined a light on the potential of ad-hoc reuse and programming some time ago but so too has groups like the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's Philadelphia Green program which has taken the idea of temporary greening to the scale of thousands of city lots.  Public art, events and tours are all, I hope, becoming a regular part of our planning world.   

So armed with the Cleveland Urban Design Center's recently released (and fantastic) Pop-Up City book on temporary and interim uses, Infill Philadelphia challenged teams of designers to take the idea of temporary use to some of Philadelphia's vacant industrial sites. 

After four hours of brainstorming, the design teams presented a range of ideas to a diverse panel of artists, designers, neighborhood leaders and city representatives.  While there were some great ideas, it was interesting to see that many trained designers still struggle with the idea of temporary.  There was clearly some concern that "temporary" would equate to "wasteful" thus resulting in many ideas for something built or fixed.     

This is an opportunity to productively bring people together which is never wasteful.  Many communities have built capacity and strong local leadership by just going out there and doing things.  For me, the more poetic and interesting results of the charrette emerged when teams put aside the idea that something had to be built but instead started with a program. Urban camping?  I'm all for it. 

So as the keynote speaker and panelist David Belt said, "just do it."  Take a guerilla approach to interim uses and see what can be done with limited dollars.  Better yet try to stretch that little bit of money to create a use and maybe something built that is an attention grabber.  So many of the areas where temporary use can be immensely helpful are off the map and overlooked.  Interim uses are an opportunity to discover something about our cities, in the case of this charrette, Philadelphia's industrial heritage. 

It's why charrettes like this are so important.  The ideas sparked debate and encouraged planners, designers and residents to start seriously talking about both the long-term issue of industrial use but also the short-term reuse of vacancy.   

Scott Page is the founder of Interface Studio, a collaborative design office based in Philadelphia.


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