The Art of Urbanism

The Art of Urbanism

Four Nights With Three Lectures: Part 3

A three part lecture review by David J. Mitchell, ASLA

Cofounders of REBAR (an interdisciplinary studio working at the intersection of art, design and ecology) Blaine Merker and John Bela discussed recent projects and design trends in their “adaptive metropolis” talk at the January 17, 2013, Northern California Chapter Lecture Event of ASLA in San Francisco.  NCC-ASLA is member-supported, non-profit organization which conducts various lectures regarding the profession of landscape architecture.

While some tactical interventions may be a new piece of source code, that rewrites the instructions for building cities, many others are fleeting spectacles that sidestep the urban development long game.  Yet, a tactical approach is making its way into professional practice through parklets, pilots, trails, interim uses, and pop-up projects.  What is the relationship between tactical interventions (sanctioned and otherwise) and long-term planning and city making?  How can the profession of LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE adapt to user-generated urbanism? This was the discussion by the cofounders of REBAR.

REBAR initiated the “COMMONSPACE”  project in May 2006.  REBAR set out to map, document and probe the explicit and unspoken rules of San Francisco’s POPOS (Privately Owned Public Open Spaces). First, REBAR gathered vital data on fourteen POPOS and created a web-based forum for publishing field reports. While REBAR noticed that POPOS are legally required to be labeled “open to the public,” it is not certain whether POPOS have the same protection of rights as traditional public space regarding public events like Flash Mobs.

REBAR took on the challenge of public space in San Francisco.  The concept of guerilla spaces derive from REBAR’s action to question the city’s urban fabric.  One of their solutions was the creation and installation of “parklets” – transforming parking spaces into a place for pedestrians to meet and hang out.  One particular project addressed the crowding concern in front of a sequence of cafes and restaurants, where customers often crowded the narrow sidewalk and occasionally spilled into the street.

A goal of REBAR and it’s clients is to activate spaces before development occurs.  For example, the use of shipping containers by a startup restaurateur in San Francisco created an eatery in a vacant lot.  Another idea could include establishing beer gardens on vacant lands.  Such projects begin to build the social fabric of a site, creating a “buzz” for the place, before building out the space.  REBAR calls the temporary use of a site the act of “building social capital.”  It is a cultural investment before brick and mortar occurs.

Merker and Bela provided various examples regarding master planning before site development versus master planning with interim uses to active the site.  Their work is to create a sense of place through place-making with the surrounding community with the goal to stimulate community interest in the site before a project is built.  There is no single cookie-cutter approach to implement “Flexible Urbanism.”   Each situation is unique, and each city has its different ways of doing things regarding site development.  The effort by REBAR is to encourage cities to relax its permitting process regarding temporary uses of sites, thus stimulating commerce and community use of such sites.

The Zidell family has launched an ambitious plan to transform 33-acre of riverfront property in Portland’s South Waterfront into a mixed-use district complete with parks, plazas and river access.  Zidell has enlisted REBAR to develop an Interim Use and Cultural Activation Plan (Temporary Use Plan) to complement the master planning process being led by ZGF Architects. REBAR’s goal is to put the site on the map as a cultural destination over the course of the master plan build out by adding a social layer and spatial innovation to this transit-oriented development infill project .

In Washington D.C., REBAR orchestrated the surrounding neighbors to paint part of a street intersection, which the City plans to convert to a public art plaza.  This engaged the neighbors with the spatial design process for the future plaza known as the Central 14th Art Place Project.  REBAR also worked with the community to create movable mockup furniture elements for the plaza.  REBAR calls this “Flexible Urban Elements” to encourage a conversation with the public in creating a space to serve the community.   One of the ways is to allow the end user to set the stage for the design project.  This flies in the face of the “Design it – they will come” approach.  REBAR sets the stage to empower the end-users of the site to have more pride and ownership with the final design and constructed space.

Bela noted that our role as designers is not only in creating spatial places, but also the social impacts to make those places alive and vibrant spaces for the community to embrace.  The key is to engage the public in fun, on-site activities that help determine the future outcome of the proposed project.  It also engages the community to meet each other. Furthermore, guerilla urbanism, like “parklets,” allows the public to question the urban fabric which surrounds them.  This thinking is known as “adaptive metropolis.”

The ASLA-NCC lecture by REBAR cofounders Blaine Merker and John Bela will be posted online shortly.   An Adaptive Metropolis Conference hosted by UC-Berkeley is being proposed for September 27-29, 2013.


Further Reading

The Urban Guide for Alternate Use blog by Scott Burnham – This site features ways in which people are treating the city not as the end of an urban design process, but the beginning of one, and then take it upon themselves to change the use of an object or area in the city to serve another need


To Summarize

I started off  the week with Will Rogers defining the need for open spaces in the urban environment and the benefits that such open spaces brings to the health of a community.  The next night provided an alternative for cities to provide such open space without the obligation to own and operate the spaces by using POPOS (Privately Owned Public Open Space).  The last lecture focused in on how to activate POPOS and other public spaces in the public realm.  Guerilla urbanism, like “parklets,” is one way to get the public to question the urban fabric they live in and embrace social places created by landscape architects. These public spaces designed by landscape architects give a city its public character.  It was a short, but not so strange trip to move through these three lectures in one week’s time.  It was a worthy trip for me to take as a landscape architect working for the City of San Jose, as the City begins to implement its Village Concept Plan contained within Its new General Plan – Envision 2040.


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