The Power of the Temporary

pincurbia_poweroftemp_brownpost_350x205.jpgPhoto: Pincurbia, the Pop-up Park

The Atlantic Magazine recently printed an article titled “Temporary is the New Permanent.” It explains that in our current economic climate, with cities low on cash and an abundance of empty lots and abandoned buildings, temporary projects are taking off. Why?

Because land owners and bureaucracies are often more willing to sign off on non-permanent creative projects that can be easily adapted or scrapped than long-term, infrastructure-heavy projects, which tend to be more expensive and less easily altered. It’s a matter of practicality. Another huge plus is that grassroots organizations, architects, designers and volunteers who want to impact their communities can take a much more active role in such projects.

PARKingDay_poweroftemp_350x260.jpgThis summer I heard John Bela, the founder of San Francisco’s Rebar Art & Design Studio, speak about the power of temporary projects.

One of the first and most well known Rebar projects is called PARK(ing) Day. The event started in 2005 when Rebar decided that for one day they would take over a metered parking space and transform it into a public park. The transformation called attention to San Francisco’s need for more public open space and demonstrated alternate uses for such valuable asphalt. In 2010 PARK(ing) Day was celebrated in 183 cities, 30 countries and 6 continents.

Every year thousands of people come up with wacky ways to occupy parking spots with interventions such as art installations, urban farms, kiddie pools, free bike-repair shops and free health care clinics, to name just a handful. The event is meant to spur dialogue about public space and show people just how much their community can benefit when just a small plot of land is temporarily repurposed. The hope is that one day, if a community deems alternative uses more important than traditional ones, certain spots could be permanently reclaimed.

Aspirations for our cities and towns are constantly evolving; long-term brick and mortar projects are not as flexible as temporary projects that can be remolded as our cultural values change. Maybe, instead of a having a small group of influential people insert a plan from above, we should allow the public to experience and understand interventions through pilot projects, then allow them to assess the project before any long-term decisions are made.

Here are a few cool examples of temporary projects happening around the globe:

jason-roberts_betterblockproj_200x222.jpgIn Oak Cliff, Texas, Jason Roberts and the Better Block Project, in true guerrilla activist style, used the addition of historic lighting, a flower market, live music, a café and a kids’ art studio to transform a car-centric corridor into a pedestrian centered destination. The 2-day project, which cost only $1000, was so successful that city hall is working to make the changes permanent.

In Vancouver, BC, a design firm called The Loose Affiliates created a temporary pop-up park called Picnurbia. The giant wave structure, covered in a squishy, yellow artificial turf, was placed in the heart of downtown in hopes of creating a place for people to gather, relax and, of course, picnic.

In San Francisco, a collaboration between the Mayor’s Office, the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association, the Public Utilities Commission, the Department of Public Works and Rebar turned a former on- and off-ramp of the Central Freeway into a 2-acre vibrant community farm. Although the farm was forced to vacate the property to make way for condo development, the pilot project made people more aware of the benefits of urban agriculture. The farm was relocated and expanded in a new location.

Tell us about a temporary project you could imagine popping up in your community!

Chase Delano on November 8, 2011

Very cool article, Ms. Brown. If I were to make my own public parking space, I would call it Parkaoke. People could gather together here, sing some karaoke, and entertain those passing by the city streets.

Paul VanDeCarr on November 9, 2011

Thanks for the post, Logan, very interesting! These temporary installations you mention are terrific. Just down the block from me there are a couple temporary art pieces--including an artist who is weaving colorful (and durable) plastic strips into patterns on a chain link fence. I'm fortunate enough to live near a large public park (Prospect Park in Brooklyn). It's got a bandshell, a sort of pavilion, a lake, plenty of areas for concerts, picnics, public art, etc. Not that we couldn't always use more public space, but there is that. I think of performance as a kind of (very!) temporary installation. I'd like to see the park--and other re-purposed outdoor spaces--used for impromptu band performances, plays, conversations, speeches, etc. Many years ago in Estonia, I was impressed to see people out chatting in the public square. People who didn't really know each other. It was an actual commons, or that was my understanding anyway, and they'd gather around the publicly posted newspapers and elsewhere in the square and talk about current events. I got in a few conversations there. I may be romanticizing the nature of this commons--it was under Soviet rule, after all, and most of the people in the square were men--but the idea of a vibrant public discussion space was enticing. That's all a long way of saying, maybe some spaces could be deliberately reconfigured for public conversation or performance. For example, there was a temporary stage erected in the panhandle of Golden Gate Park once years ago. It wasn't especially popular with some of the neighbors, who were concerned about impromptu bands congregating there at all hours, but that's something along the lines of what I'm thinking about. A space where it's understood that people gather publicly to perform, or to converse about the neighborhood itself, or about political issues.

Logan Brown on November 11, 2011

Paul, I so appreciate your insightful comments. I agree that art and performance in public space can be a very powerful temporary intervention. In my post I did not mention a Rebar initiative called COMMONspace, which explores privately owned public spaces through a series of "paraformances" designed to spur discussion about different spaces' unspoken social codes. My favorite of these performances was one called "The Nappening". The studio set up elegant cots in pubic spaces and provided relaxing timed nap sessions for people. I believe that any art or performance that attempts to get people talking with one another is worthwhile. Even better are those projects that ask us to question whether a public space is indeed public. I also romantically long for more public spaces, in which strangers gather, enjoy performances, engage in performance, play and dialogue. The model I often think of is the polis of ancient Greece, where people truly understood the importance of their public life. Unfortunately, I think that particularly in modern America, there is a tendency for people to place more value on their private lives. The individual pursuit is of the utmost importance, strangers are not to be talked to, we would rather relax in the privacy of our own homes. I am so thankful that organizations like Orton, Rebar, and the Project for Public Spaces exist and encourage people to step out of their homes, their comfort zones, and engage in their communities and public spaces.

Logan Brown on November 11, 2011

Chase, I absolutely love your Parkaoke idea! Perhaps you should try it some sunny day in a San Fransisco park or wait until next year's PARK(ing) day. And if you do, please document it and share it with us.

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