Over six weeks in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood, the art and design collective known as the Museum of Contemporary Phenomena (MCP) harnessed one of the city’s greatest and most overlooked sources of energy: teenagers. In a vacant storefront, MCP conducted a series of hands-on workshops addressing the design of safe spaces. Thirty teens took part, learning about the complete design process—interviewing neighbors, mapping sites, brainstorming ideas, developing concepts, presenting them to the community, and selecting an idea to pursue at full scale. Their final project was the transformation of a parking lot into a lively place, replete with benches, flower planters, a climbing wall, and skateboard ramps which the teens built themselves. By empowering teens to improve the spaces they regularly occupy, Territory created an opening for them to positively interact with each other and their communities.

PUPstop Project

Waiting for a bus in Indianapolis is primarily a standing affair. Of the 4,000 bus stops in the city’s transit system, only 42 have benches. When demolition started on the historic Bush Stadium, former home of the Indianapolis Indians, in 2012, People for Urban Progress (PUP) salvaged 9,000 fold-up bleacher seats and began upcycling them as the bus stop seating. PUP, a nonprofit “idea incubator, design center, and do-tank,” partnered with local sustainability advocate Ecolaborative and Indianapolis Fabrications to refurbish the original red and yellow seats for sidewalk installation. Working with the city’s public transit agency IndyGO, there are now 11 “PUPstops” installed throughout Indianapolis, and more in the works. PUP’s website invites citizens to identify sites, sponsor and otherwise help more communities get their own PUPstops.

Placemaking in Bronzeville

Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood was a vibrant center of African American culture in the early 1900s, but its recent history has been marked by vacancy and economic decline. In summer 2012, architect Monica Chadha and her students from the Illinois Institute of Technology identified the intersection of 43rd and Calumet, where three of the four corners were vacant lots, for a small pilot project to create positive community gathering places. Working with residents and business owners to define the community’s needs, Chadha and her students developed a system of portable, lightweight furniture, including game tables and storage bins, as well as a Candy Chang – style community message board that invites debate about the future of the neighborhood. Residents continue to use the furniture, and the project spurred a community-led cleanup of the most derelict of the corner lots.

Piazza Gratissima

New York artists and sculptors Rahul Alexander, Jonathan Brand, Adam Brent, Ryan Roa, and Travis LeRoy Southworth formed the collective BroLab out of their shared interest in bridging design, art, community service, and placemaking. For them, a small under-utilized space in front of the Mott Haven Public Library in the Bronx seemed ripe for improvement. They sought permission from the library and city officials to develop a design intervention, and met with locals to hear what the neighborhood needed. Armed with $5,180 raised on Kickstarter, the artists created Piazza Gratissima, a multipurpose “free plaza” that amplifies the library’s position as a public commons. Like their previous collaborations, Piazza Gratissima reinforces their desire to “connect art to the live activities of both making and engagement.”

Imaging Detroit

For the city that spawned the term “ruin porn,” sources for a positive self-image have been hard to come by. Recognizing that image-making can be used constructively in Detroit’s economic and social recovery, three professors at University of Michigan’s Taubman School of Architecture — Anya Sirota, Mireille Roddier, Jean Louis Farges — organized Imaging Detroit, a 36-hour outdoor film festival held in Perrien Park to engage residents in debating their city’s public image. Fifty documentaries about Detroit (selected from hundreds of international submissions to an open call) were screened back-to-back inside a complex of temporary plywood structures, followed by lively panel discussions. This pop-up agora turned the park into a vibrant civic space for public dialogue, drawing passionate citizens, artists, architects, academics, writers, urbanists, and policymakers alike.

Flint Public Art Project

Flint Public Art Project (FPAP) is an ambitious attack on the actual and imagined cultural and economic distress in Flint, Michigan. FPAP founder Stephen Zacks (a Flint native and now Brooklyn-based writer) invites architects, artists, thinkers, and activists from around the world to collaborate with local talent and organizations, resulting in participatory cultural events, public art installations, and demonstration projects of urban revitalization or branding strategies. Recently realized projects include Alex Gilliam’s Tiny WPA, a chairbomb developed with local teens that easily bolts to bus signposts, and a large-scale video projection by VJ Kero on Genesse Towers, Flint’s tallest building, now entirely vacant (pictured). Recently, FPAP launched the Flat Lot Competition, a collaboration with the Flint AIA chapter, awarding $25,000 to London studio Two Islands to create a temporary pavilion for events and programs, scheduled for summer 2013.

Cleveland Bridge Project

Like many other postindustrial cities, Cleveland has more infrastructure — roads, bridges, and pipes — than necessary to meet the needs of the city’s shrinking population. The Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (CUDC), a nonprofit based at Kent State University and led by Terry Schwartz, has been working to transform the city’s existing assets into lively public spaces. CUDC worked with local firm Environmental Design Group to develop ideas for alternative uses of the lower level of the Detroit-Superior Bridge, which was originally designed for streetcars and has been vacant since 1954. Since 2009, they have been organizing temporary events and installations, including wayfinding to help people get to the bridge, taped-off bike lanes, modular seating, flea market stands, and a portable lawn on wheels. Ultimately, Schwartz hopes the bridge will become a permanent public space. In the meanwhile, these interventions invite people to envision future possibilities for the space and make it their own.

The City from the Valley

Fundamental shifts are underway in the relationship between San Francisco and the Silicon Valley as legions of tech workers are opting to live in the city, thus reversing the traditional suburb-to-city commute. San Franciscobased communication design firm Stamen created The City from the Valley, a map of the alternate transportation network of private buses that threads through the city daily, picking up employees of Google, Facebook, Apple, and the like, at unmarked bus stops, and carrying them southward to their campuses. Deploying bike messengers and others to track the buses, Stamen collected route information and mapped what is a surprisingly vast, high-frequency, and unregulated system. Like previous projects such as Cabspotting and Crimespotting, The City from the Valley harnesses data to visualize the flows of urban activities, ultimately helping us to understand the changing patterns and needs of the city.

61st Street Farmers Market

Farmers markets tend to offer high-quality vegetables at prohibitively high costs, but the 61st Street Market in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood, started by Connie Spreen and Dan Peterman of Experimental Station, has pioneered a radical alternative. Each week over the summer, more than 20 local farmers and vendors selling fresh fruit and vegetables, meats, poultry, eggs, cheeses, baked goods and specialty items accept food stamps (LINK/SNAP) and match purchases up to $25 per day through a Double Value Coupon Program. To support a broader culture of nutrition and healthy food, food-focused public educational programs, often conducted by vendors, have been in place since the market’s inception. The result is a sales growth of 1,000% from 2008 to 2010; the market is now championed as a model for farmers markets across the state of Illinois.

Pop-Up Art Loop

Launched at the height of the recession, Pop-Up Art Loop was conceived as a way to turn increased vacancy in downtown storefronts into an opportunity to showcase the Windy City’s arts community. Hundreds of thousands of office workers, tourists, and residents pack the Loop daily, making its storefronts ideal for exposing artists’ work to new audiences. Taking its cue from retail window displays, the Chicago Loop Alliance, a member-based business organization, provides free space for pop-up galleries. Last year, the Alliance took over 16 vacant properties and invited dozens of arts organizations to curate 49 original exhibitions, each accompanied by public programs. WIth these efforts, the Alliance hopes to build a more “curious, smart, and bold” Chicago.


Sightlines at the entrance of New York’s subway stations are prime visual real estate, and such real estate comes with a price tag—one paid more easily by promoting commodities than art. Artist Jason Eppink, however, devised a way to appropriate these LED billboards for a more artful purpose: Pixelator, a homemade foam core and paper screen that can be affixed to any of the monitors, transforming commercial pollution into abstract projections of light and color. The results are wholly spontaneous and dependent on the advertisements hidden behind the intervention. In keeping with this open-ended spirit, Eppink has posted on his webiste simple instructions for building your own Pixelator.

Phone Booth Book Share

With smart phones near universal, one might wonder why public payphones still occupy so much sidewalk space. The Department of Urban Betterment’s (DUB) Phone Booth Book Share is part of a series of urban interventions that explore obsolete street technology. It might look like a simple repurposing of phone booths into community book shares, but DUB’s motto – nascetur ridiculus mus, “and a ridiculous mouse will be brought forth” – hints at a grander objective. Architect John Locke invokes Homer to argue, “The central office has no brain. The paternalistic top- down strategy of traditional urban planning has been a waste of heroic labors. We can match modest labors with exceptional gains by turning even a few of our neighbors into consciously critical observers.”

Periscope Project

The Periscope Project is a cooperative of artists, designers, scholars, and community advocates headquartered in four shipping containers on the small San Diego lot of founder Petar Perisic. The space functions as a public amenity and a living visualization of alternative urban land use, exploiting temporary-use zoning loopholes as an opportunity to realize a new paradigm of urban citizenry – one engaged at the level of the built environment. The cooperative curates, organizes, and hosts events, exhibitions, panel discussions, and lectures in the flexible spaces, and also emphasizes educational programming to engage local youth. The Periscope Project has become a central force in rallying community activism and has evolved into a loose practice that develops public art and architecture interventions.

Participation Park

In a gesture of resistance to the mounting privatization of public space, the artist collective Baltimore Development Cooperative took over an empty lot in East Baltimore in 2007. The result is Participation Park – a nod to Berkeley’s historic People’s Park – which they continue to squat to this day, and is group’s longest running project. The park is an experiment in democratic spatial practice, in which everyone who participates in the use of the space is invited to engage in the political process of shaping it. Working with input from neighborhood residents to design and implement new uses for the land, the Baltimore Development Cooperative has effected the park’s evolution from an urban farm to a community kitchen, free store, and adventure playground.

Parkman Triangle Park

Los Angeles – based Urban Operations’ work exploits loopholes in the rules that govern the streetscape. Parkman Triangle, a wedge-shaped space that was once a turn lane, is classified by the city as an “improvement” instead of as a park. Initiated by John Southern, the pocket park is planted with native and drought-resistant trees, succulents, and grasses. City guidelines regulate boulders differently than street furniture, so the designer chose large flat rocks for seating. Local residents pitched in to help with the construction. “It fosters a sense of civic stewardship between members of the community through its maintenance and upkeep,” Southern says. The project is part of a study focusing on the identification and reprogramming of sites that do not appear in GIS databases.

Paintings for Satellites

Artist Molly Dilworth’s paintings serve the general public, even if the general public can’t easily see her work. Her ongoing series Paintings for Satellites turns buildings’ fifth elevation into dazzling murals that mitigate urban heat island effect. Some of the most environmentally aware cities in the world encourage building owners to paint their rooftops lighter, more reflective colors to reduce heat gain and cut energy use and greenhouse emissions. New York City’s CoolRoofs program and climate change advocacy group recently invited Dilworth to paint the roof of a Brooklyn high school (pictured). For the most part, however, her work remains self-generated, relying on discarded house paint and easy (not always) access to rooftops.

Occupy Wall Street

Set off in September 2011 with protests in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, Occupy Wall Street uses the takeover of public spaces as a means to protest economic inequality. Under the slogan “We are the 99%”, the movement quickly manifested as global “instant cities” – tent encampments complete with civic services such as first aid, canteens, and libraries that supported the needs of protesters living outdoors for weeks. Protesters developed a number of clever systems and tactics that have continued to grow. In Zuccotti Park, the Screenprinters Guild created a portable system to get messages quickly onto t-shirts and banners, while Greta Hansen, a member of the OWS Architecture Working Group, led a team that developed 123 Occupy, pop-up shelters using everyday materials such as shipping pallets and bubblewrap.

No Longer Empty

Founded in the dark months following the 2008 financial bust, No Longer Empty brings temporary art exhibitions and programming to vacant storefronts. Seeking partnerships with landlords (who recognize that bringing traffic into their spaces might help them find tenants), No Longer Empty creates temporary cultural and educational hubs. Artists, community members, educators, curators, and academics all come together at No Longer Empty events. The diversity of participants drives the program’s vibrancy. Each exhibition draws curatorial inspiration from active site research and response. Executive director Naomi Hersson-Ringskog has a background in urban planning and real estate, and hopes to use nomadic occupation to foster longer-term change by highlighting the potential for businesses in an area and supporting community development.

New Public Sites

Artist Graham Coreil-Allen applies psychogeography and Situationist principles to the everyday urban walking tour in his New Public Sites project. After extensive research into the definitions of and legal issues surrounding public space, Coreil- Allen developed an understanding of the latent potential in empty, ambiguous, contradictory, or invisible areas of the city. Through a series of guided walking tours that use architecture and planning terminology in a “playful yet serious” manner, Coreil-Allen activates and informs citizens about the civic and social possibilities of underutilized spaces. Participants are given free maps of the area explored, and invited to read Coreil-Allen’s growing Typology of New Public Sites (available for free download) to learn more about his “radical pedestrianism” and “radical cartography.”


Candy Chang, Tee Parham, and Dan Parham developed Neighborland to allow people to share their ideas and insights for their city, support their neighbors’ ideas, and connect with people who share their interests. Informed by Chang’s “I Wish This Was” (project #53), the Neighborland website was created to provide the people of New Orleans with a platform to identify achievable goals and discuss how to accomplish them. Forums for twenty-five other cities have since been added to the site. Simple tactics like stickers, spray chalk, and physical signage bring people together oine and spark conversations in public space. The team’s goal is to help make cities more complete, compact, and connected.


Despite amenities like a farmers’ market and historic buildings, Oakland’s old business district was lacking in vibrant street life. Architect and local business owner Alfonso Dominguez and artist Sarah Filley co-founded nonprofit popuphood as a small-business incubator to revitalize the neighborhood and spark long-term economic development. Working with a landlord who agreed to provide space in vacant storefronts, Filley and Dominguez recruited five complementary businesses with the promise of six months of free rent and marketing support. The project launched before last Christmas and has so far been a success, generating buzz as a new destination unique for its hyper- local approach to retail. Three of the original retailers have signed long-term leases, and the neighborhood seems on the rise.

Power House

Architect Gina Reichert and artist/curator Mitch Cope of Detroit- based Design 99 use off-the-grid technologies to instigate change in their neighborhood. Power House encourages residents to turn abandoned homes into sculptures that double as supply sources of off-the-grid energy. The pair, working with Dutch group Partizan Publik, transformed a modest 1923 wood-frame house into what Reichert calls “a test lab of sorts for ideas and methods, low and high tech building systems, and a point of conversation for the entire community.” It is demonstration home for sustainable systems, a model for long-term economic investment, a bright spot in the struggling neighborhood, and a site for knowledge sharing on solar and wind power technologies.

San Francisco Garden Registry

The San Francisco Garden Registry is an online map and social networking tool created to connect urban gardeners and to locate current or potential open spaces in the city that are suitable for growing food. By registering these “food production zones” online, a comprehensive land use portrait begins to emerge. Set up by San Francisco art and design collective Futurefarmers, the Garden Registry seeks to quantify the total farmable acreage within the city in order to better support, connect, and cultivate these spaces. To date, some 1,500 acres have been identified.


To enliven San Francisco’s Mid-Market District, a neighborhood with one of the highest crime rates and lowest occupancy rates in the city, architecture firm HOK initiated a charrette, teaming up with the Central Market Community Benefit District and drawing dozens of firms including Public Architecture and WSP Flack + Kurtz, as well as local residents. From these sessions emerged a proposal for simple adaptive reuse – converting disused newspaper kiosks into community-focused hubs and sites for micro-businesses. Proposed new uses include a free bicycle repair station, a florist, a café, and a venue for performance art. The city agreed to lease the kiosks free of charge for the community uses. The bike station opened several months ago, and the florist will open next.

Skipping Only Zones

For most, the choice route to and from work (or anywhere, for that matter) is the fastest, most direct, or most familiar. Bent on breaking up the monotony of rote passage by introducing a little fun, Sierra Seip and Alison Uljee created Skipping Only Zones, with signs that riff off the standard pedestrian-crossing sign installed at various crosswalks, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths throughout New York City. The designers were heartened to see people follow their sign’s prompt, goofily skipping across streets or bonding with strangers over a funny, shared moment. Skipping Only Zones is part of Seip and Uljee’s larger project, Design That Moves You, a series of urban interventions that uses fun as a motivator for increased physical activity and social interaction.

Soil Kitchen

Soil Kitchen was a temporary windmill-powered architectural intervention that breathed new life into a formerly abandoned building within the postindustrial landscape of Philadelphia. For one week, the multi-use space offered visitors free soup while they waited for soil samples from their yards to be tested for contaminants. Located across the street from the Don Quixote monument in Philadelphia, the project paid homage to Cervantes with its rooftop windmill, but rather than an “adversarial giant” as in the novel, the windmill was a symbol of self-reliance. Soil Kitchen tested over 350 soil samples, gave out 300 bowls of soup daily, distributed a Philadelphia Brownfields Map, and conducted workshops on soil remediation, urban agriculture, composting, wind turbine construction, and offered cooking lessons.


A placeholder for more permanent development, proxy is a temporary two-block project that creates an ever-changing experience in a neighborhood in transition. Leasing empty lots from the city (formerly occupied by an elevated freeway), San Francisco architect Douglas Burnham has engineered a thriving destination with pop-up food stands, art installations, a beer garden, an area for food trucks, and event and retail spaces. Smartly revamped shipping containers compose an open frame- work that embraces the potential of impermanence, encouraging the rotation of new businesses and happenings. With plans for outdoor films and a farmers’ market, proxy has become the focal point of its community and an inspiration to cities across the U.S. looking to maximize the potential of latent real estate.

Popularise: Build Your City

As a reaction to real estate development that’s often out of touch with local wants and needs, former developer Ben Miller created an online crowdsourcing platform called Popularise to give people a way to influence how their neighborhoods take shape. Launched in Washington, D.C., with other city editions in the works, the website invites the public to suggest businesses they’d like to see occupy vacant storefronts in their neighborhoods and to offer feedback on impending projects. Builders can post descriptions and photos of projects in the works, and solicit community input. With many cities confronting the same problems, such as empty storefronts or shopping strips filled with big-chain retailers, Popularise facilitates “a new way to develop authentic places” that draws from the power of the crowd.

Pop Up City

Since 2007 the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative of Kent State University has run Pop Up City, a program that brings vacant urban space to life through fleeting interventions. Cleveland lost half of its population since the 1950s, and much of its urban fabric is unused and deteriorating. Pop Up City aims to spotlight some of Cleveland’s spectacular but underutilized properties, while demonstrating that vacancy can be an opportunity and an adventure, not just a liability. Past interventions have included an ice sculpture park on the banks of the Cuyahoga River; a roller-disco on a vacant floor of an old industrial building; and an inflatable music venue on top of a parking garage, demonstrating possible alternative programming for structures that are used only during certain hours of the day.


We all know how powerful a well-made viral video can be to advance a cause. Streetfilms has harnessed that power to promote smart transportation design and policy and its potential to create happy, healthy places to live. The New York nonprofit Streetfilms (sister organization of OpenPlans) has produced over 400 short films on subjects ranging from bikeway design to sustainable transport to parking reform, shot in locations all over the world. One of its most-viewed films is about Ciclovía, a weekly “open streets” event in Bogotá, Colombia, in which over 70 miles of streets are closed for leisurely cycling. The video has received over 200,000 hits and has helped advocates everywhere to convince their own city officials to implement ciclovías.

Walk Raleigh: Guerrilla Wayfinding

For Matt Tomasulo, the inclination to drive in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, was a result more of perceived distance than actual necessity – a tendency endemic in many American cities. As an antidote to this misconception, he devised Walk Raleigh, an unsanctioned wayfinding system for pedestrians. Tomasulo hung 27 signs at three major Raleigh intersections, each with a directional arrow, a count of how many “minutes by foot” are necessary to reach a destination, and a QR code for more information. Though the signs were removed within days of being posted, overwhelming support from the local community led the Raleigh City Council to reinstate Walk Raleigh as an official pilot project, promoting a healthier and safer pedestrian environment in the city.

Syracuse Downtown

Town-and-gown relations in Syracuse were long characterized by disconnect, with the thriving institution of Syracuse University geographically and culturally removed from its economically- depressed hometown. Under Dean Mark Robbins, the University’s School of Architecture (SOA) saw the struggling city as an opportunity to put scholarship into action. SOA moved its classrooms and studios downtown, and initiated over 30 projects in the city, including Storefront:Syracuse (pictured), a student-run initiative by Nilus Klingel and Stephen Klimek that transforms vacant storefronts into creative hubs. Other projects include La Casita Cultural Center by PARA- Project and the forthcoming South Side Food Cooperative. Robbins also encouraged his faculty to realize personal projects in Syracuse (see banner #111, Anda French’s Spatial ConTXTs). SOA proves that academic institutions can both study and solve urban issues.

The Uni

The Uni is a mobile, modular outdoor library designed to reinforce the potential for learning in the public sphere. Developed in Boston by Street Lab (now The Uni Project) in collaboration with Höweler + Yoon Architecture, the Uni introduces an unfamiliar use of the public realm, converting any square or sidewalk into a plein-air learning lounge. Uni’s lightweight modular structures are composed of open-faced stacking cubes, which can each hold 10 to 15 books, and can be adapted to almost any public space. The first was assembled in a street market in Lower Manhattan, and Unis have since been installed all over New York City, Boston, and recently, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, with book selections varying according to location and time.

Version Festival 12

Bridgeport, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, has long been an Irish-American, working-class enclave but has recently showed signs of change. The Public Media Institute (PMI) – led by artist Ed Marszewski, a longtime Bridgeport resident – took a proactive look at the neighborhood’s future evolution by making it the focus of its 12th Version Festival, an annual month-long community arts event. For the Bridgeport edition, the aim was to create a temporary autonomous zone: PMI invited cultural workers, activists, entrepreneurs, artists, designers, foodies, and dreamers to swarm the neighborhood, remixing twelve temporary spaces. For one month, these pop-ups – including a bookstore, performance space, home-brewing clubhouse, galleries, shops selling locally made goods, and community kitchen – invigorated the area and provided a glimpse of potential long-term cultural and economic change.

War Gastronomy: Recipes of Relocation

It might appear to be just another sidewalk food cart, but San Francisco artists Justin Hoover and Chris Treggiari’s set-up – a mobile kitchen/café fashioned from industrial bikes and travel trunks – is actually a cultural project about globalization and dislocation. Touched by his Chinese grandmother’s tales of escaping war, and by her traditional cooking, Hoover started to collect recipes from people who have been forced to move due to conflict in their home countries. At predetermined times in public places, the pair sets up their cart and serves dishes along with the personal stories attached to them. Passersby can contribute their own recipes to War Gastronomy’s ever-growing archive, feeding a performance/participatory work that brings the communal experience of cooking, eating, and sharing stories to public space.

Hypothetical Development Organization

The Hypothetical Development Organization is dedicated to a new form of built-environment storytelling. Founders – design writer Rob Walker, photographer Ellen Susan, and publisher G. K. Darby – commissioned architects, designers, and artists to take existing sites, often run-down, vacant buildings, and reimagine them as fantastic pieces of architecture. These fictions were rendered on 3-by-5-foot posters (modeled on conventional developer advertisements) and posted on ten locations in New Orleans, transforming each into a site of engagement, provocation, and imagination. Examples include the Museum of the Self, featuring a thumbs-up “like” icon as a marquee; a boutique maker of artisanal velvet ropes (because “boutiques and artisanal products signal exclusivity, and thus economic vitality”), and the Loitering Centre, a perfectly reasonable use for unused spaces.

I Wish This Was

Vacant storefronts are an urban mainstay. But while passersby may dream of what they wish would fill the void, rarely do they get any say in the matter. Combining street art and city planning, I Wish This Was is an interactive public art project that invites residents to voice their ideas about improving the neighborhood. Trained in architecture, graphic design, and urban planning, Candy Chang posts grids of blank stickers on vacant buildings so that residents can write their thoughts on future use, provid- ing a fun, low-barrier tool to spark civic engagement and a way to showcase the city’s collective imagination. The project was launched in New Orleans, but stickers are available online and have been appearing in cities around the world.


The Insert____Here project, launched by artist Eve Mosher in response to a perceived lack of public awareness around community-driven change, capitalizes on community awareness of place and optimism. The project invites participants to place bold yellow “Insert____Here” arrows in locations in their community where they want to “insert” an urban change or intervention. By posting their ideas on site, individuals can share their proposed solutions with the greater community. Arrows have also been projected onto the sides of buildings during events, allowing passersby to text their wishes for a site and see them broadcast live to the neighborhood.

Intersection Repair

Sometimes all you need to create a great public space is a gesture that makes people feel welcome and comfortable: Mark Lakeman realized that public gathering places could be retroactively created out of normal street intersections in his Portland neighborhood with some paint and community effort. City Repair, the organization he founded in 1996, is an almost all-volunteer organization that gathers communities to paint murals on street crossings and to add other improvements, like benches, information boards, and plantings, yielding lively new focal points for their neighborhoods. They started with Share- It Square and Sunnyside Piazza, and have since expanded to dozens of intersections across the country, where neighbors gather annually to repaint and update their community spaces.

KISS Popup Chapel

To celebrate the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York state, social networking hub Architizer and wedding-planning website sponsored a competition to create a temporary chapel to be installed in Central Park on July 30, 2011, for wedding ceremonies to be conducted all day. Z-A Studio’s winning KISS Popup Chapel was designed to be easily transported and assembled, with two curving walls made of layered honeycombed cardboard joined to create a playful vault. Architect Guy Zucker describes KISS as an allegory for marriage, “two separate parts, made of the same DNA but layered differently,” cardboard joined to create “a stable entity that is more than the sum of its parts” – an allegory for marriage. Twenty-four couples were married in the chapel.

LA Green Grounds

While leading urban farming courses for the LA Museum of Natural History, Vanessa Vobis noticed that her attendees were mostly white families, many of whom already have access to healthy food options. To make these skills more accessible to diverse communities, Vobis approached a neighbor in the low-income community surrounding the museum, offering to build a home garden in exchange for the homeowner recruiting friends and family to help with the physical work and to learn about urban farming together. LA Green Grounds now holds monthly “dig-ins,” like old-fashioned barn-raisings, where residents work together to convert front yards into edible gardens in one day. Trained as an artist, Vobis sees participatory engagement as central to the work of socially active artists who attempt to resist the commercialization of the arts scene.

Local Code: Real Estates

When artist Gordon Matta-Clark created Fake Estates in the early 1970s, he spent three years combing through public records to identify 15 fallow, forgotten city-owned lots. Using GIS mapping, architect Nicholas de Monchaux identified over 1,500 vacant public lots in San Francisco in a matter of months. In the U.C. Berkeley professor’s eyes, when considered together, these residual, unmaintained spaces are a vast untapped resource. Using parametric design to optimize thermal and hydrological performance, he proposes a landscape design for each parcel, resulting in a network of urban greenways that enhances the city’s ecology and benefits citizens’ health. He has extended the research to other cities, creating a database of neglected sites that could be recuperated to create infrastructures that mend ecological and social circumstances.

Local Previews

A city like New York is in constant flux, but its extraordinary rate of transformation is largely driven by new developments intent on maximizing square footage and profits, showing little concern for neighborhood continuity or invigorating public space. “Construction sites beg the imagination of what could or should be built,” according to Freecell’s principals Lauren Crahan and John Hartmann. Local Previews is a series of fictitious development posters for unbuilt sites. One scheme advertises City Sort, a recycling center with a rooftop greenhouse. Another, SKY- field, proposes a vertical farm to supply organic produce to the city’s schools. “It’s a form of architectural graffiti,” they explain, “meant to capture people’s imagination and to challenge them to question the changes that are happening around them.”

Marcus Prize Pavilion

Dotted with brownfield sites, Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley is just one of the nation’s many damaged postindustrial corridors in need of revitalization. Through a design-build studio at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Barkow Leibinger Architects and Professor Kyle Talbott introduced a catalyst for the process of its rehabilitation. The studio created the Marcus Prize Pavilion, a permanent structure to serve as a meeting point and storage facility for volunteer gardeners working to restore the surrounding landscape. The pavilion’s design is inspired by local ecology, with a light, plywood-beamed roof mimicking the structure of leaves. It’s meant to be the first of a series of interventions to create a support network for the valley’s environmental reclamation.

MyBlockNYC is an interactive, user-generated mapping website populated with personal video accounts of the life and culture of New York City. The public is invited to upload videos and tag them to the exact time and location where they were shot. The MyBlock map conveys not just the geography of the city but the stories, culture, and style that define a location. Videos are searchable by location as well as by time of day and topic (for example, street fair, pizza, playgrounds). The goal of MyBlockNYC is to harness the creative potential of the city’s occupants and visitors, and to paint a rich, intimate, constantly evolving portrait of the city to be shared with others.

Tactical Urbanism Handbook

While large-scale planning schemes definitely have their role, Mike Lydon and his colleagues at the Street Plans Collaborative believe that the work of improving the livability of towns and cities starts at the scale of the street. They saw small-scale, short-term projects happening all over the country, and decided to create a resource for would-be interventionists. The Tactical Urbanism Handbook, now in its second volume, gathers examples of low-cost incremental improvements that spotlight specific problems and generate support for more substantial investments in the future. From guerrilla gardens and weed-bombing (tagging overgrown weeds with eyepopping colors) to food trucks and pop-up town halls, the Handbook documents dozens of useful and replicable tactics. Available free online, volumes one and two have each been downloaded nearly 30,000 times.


Whereas guerrilla activists tackle the lack of bike lanes through late-night painting, LightLane literally sheds light on the problem. Created by industrial designer Evan Gant and mechanical engineer Alex Tee, LightLane is a small device affixed to a bicycle that uses bright LEDs and high-visibility lasers to project a cyclist’s personal, protective bike lane. “Instead of forcing cyclists to adapt their behavior to the existing infrastructure, the bike lane should adapt to the cyclist,” the designers say. Originally developed for a 2009 design competition, LightLane gained attention in 2010 after being featured in the exhibition Hyperlinks at the Art Institute of Chicago. Gant and Tee are in the midst of getting their product to market, though several knock-offs have already appeared in Asia.

Aquaponics Container System

With global climate change and endless other environmental threats, the need for agriculture innovation to ensure food security is becoming a dire necessity. Architect Joyce Rosner and material scientist Ernesto de La Garza drew from their respective disciplines to design the Aquaponics Container System. Made from repurposed refrigerated shipping containers, Aquaponics houses an aquaculture and hydroponics system for farming fish and fresh vegetables. The container is transportable, soil independent, and efficient in water use. It can be set up in both urban and rural areas, consuming little energy and resources. The project exemplifies the sort of interdisciplinary work necessary to ensure a sustainable future, and holds the potential to feed communities living in food deserts or without access to farmable land.


AirCasting is a platform for recording, visualizing, mapping, and sharing environmental data using smart phone technology. Aimed at enhancing the impact of community voices on building greener cities, users can use their local measurements of sound, temperature, humidity, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide, and share their data with a worldwide community via the AirCasting CrowdMap with the goal of creating a set of “actionable data.” According to its creators, HabitatMap, a New York nonprofit devoted to environmental health justice, “Much of what happens in our immediate environment passes without note, despite the positive contribution that recording and crowdsourcing these moments may have on our understanding of our health and the health of our communities.”

Bartering and Sharing Networks

Sharing cars and bikes has become commonplace, but what about sharing tools, skills, and just about everything else? In recent years there has been an explosion of sharing and bartering networks, allowing people to swap, for example, their power tools for knitting classes or surplus garden vegetables. While primitive economies have historically depended on the smallness and familiarity of one’s village or tribe, the resurgence of interest in capital-free exchange is fueled by websites that help people take advantage of urban density by facilitating their trade with others who might live on the same block (or same building!). OhSoWe, OurGoods, Trade School, and e-flux’s Time/Bank are just a few recent endeavors that help expand people’s access to resources while avoiding more consumption.

Greenaid Seedbomb Vending Machine

Made from a mixture of clay, compost, and seeds, seed bombs can be tossed anonymously into derelict urban sites to green the city. Los Angeles design firm COMMONstudio created the coin- operated Greenaid dispensary to make guerrilla gardening more accessible. Marketing the machines to businesses to rent or to own, the designers have installed more than 150 since 2010, each equipped with a mix of native seeds. The seed bombs are hand-rolled by workers contracted through Chrysalis, an LA nonprofit that helps homeless and low-income residents earn a living wage and work towards self-sufficiency. The vending machines invite people to become casual activists, taking part in the incremental beautification of their environments – using only the loose coins in their pocket.

GOOD Ideas for Cities

GOOD Ideas for Cities taps creative problem-solvers to tackle urban challenges and present the solutions at live events across the country. The project connects creative teams with civic leaders who can help put the ideas into action. The high-energy live events allow for a meaningful dialogue between the creative teams and urban leaders, as well as feedback from the audience. In St. Louis, for example, designers proposed turning neighborhood dividing lines into bridges between communities. In New York, designers suggested improvements to subway wayfinding with to-the- minute GPS route updates and alerts. In 2012, GOOD Ideas for Cities is taking its program to five mid-sized cities and multiple schools across the U.S.

Fresh Moves Mobile Market

Fresh Moves Mobile Market is a single-aisle grocery store located in an unlikely venue: a retrofitted Chicago Transit Authority bus, which was purchased from the city for $1. Architecture for Humanity Chicago partnered with local nonprofit Food Desert Action to design the bus, which brings fresh produce to the 500,000 Chicago residents living in neighborhoods that are classified as food deserts. Fresh Moves’ website lists its hourly schedule, and the mobile market not only sells produce but also offers classes on cooking and nutrition. The organizers are documenting the impact of Fresh Moves to support the possibility of scaling the operation up in Chicago or replicating it in other cities.

Faubourg St. Roch Project

Founded by architect Drew Lang, the Faubourg St. Roch Project is dedicated to the full-scale revitalization of the city’s St. Rochelle neighborhood, which suffered extensive damage during Hurricane Katrina but had also endured decades of neglect. Since 2005 Lang has been studying, planning, acquiring permits, and working with the community to enact a plan that involves renovating damaged housing, invigorating public space, and reintroducing commercial and cultural ventures along a nine-block segment of St. Roch Avenue. Lang, who has offices in New York and New Orleans, recently completed thermal retrofits of seven homes and opened a community garden. He wants not only to create a sustainable, affordable neighborhood for residents, but to develop a model of community-based urban renewal for other neighborhoods to follow.

Field Guide to Phytoremediation

According to the New York Department of City Planning, more than 6% of the city’s land is vacant, adding up to approximately 11,700 acres of underutilized land. Many of these lots are plagued with contaminated soil as a result of previous constructions and industrial uses. To educate property owners about how they can initiate cost-effective toxic clean up, architect and planner Kaja Kühl created the Field Guide to Phytoremediation, a do- you-it-yourself (DIY) handbook that is available online and as a downloadable pamphlet. She also launched the Field Lab, an experimental garden in the South Bronx where she tests and demonstrates DIY brownfield remediation techniques to citizens.

Edible Wall

The Bronx suffers many burdens, including high rates of unemployment, poverty, obesity, and food insecurity. In response, local high school teacher Stephen Ritz came up with the idea of using gardening to engage his troubled students. As the students’ in-class farm flourished, so did their academic performance: Daily attendance jumped from 40 to 93%, while 25,000 pounds of organic fruits and vegetables have gone into school lunches or have been sold to community members. Green Living Technologies developed the mobile growing walls that enable Ritz’s team to grow vertical farms in even the smallest classrooms, or on rooftops, side lots, subway canopies, public buildings. The program has evolved into a successful job-training program, generating paid work for 2,200 students, including contracts with private homeowners.

Edible Estates

Edible Estates, founded by Los Angeles–based artist Fritz Haeg, is an ongoing initiative to replace domestic front lawns with kitchen gardens, allowing families to grow their own food. Haeg has overseen the remaking of more than a dozen gardens across the U.S. and in Europe, ranging from small suburban lawns to public housing estates in New York (pictured) and the UK. Each garden is designed to respond to the unique characteristics of the site, the desires of owners, and the site’s history, climate, and geography. These simple, low-cost gardens promote a more productive use of the land between our homes and the street, and a closer relationship with neighbors, our food, and the natural environment.

Day Labor Station

The San Francisco nonprofit Public Architecture (PA) believes designers can play a role in identifying larger social problems as well as in solving them: The 117,000 day laborers in the U.S. gather in parking lots and on street corners in hopes of finding work, leaving them exposed to the elements and, often, the anger of those who oppose immigration. In response, PA developed the Day Labor Station to serve as a meeting place and amenity for laborers. Though it hasn’t been deployed, it launched an advocacy effort around the working conditions of laborers. The ongoing campaign has led to outreach with about a dozen worker networks across the country, and PA hopes it will inspire others to identify problems where social consciousness and design can beneficially intersect.

Crown Heights Participatory Urbanism

The remnants of an 1887 shuttle train connecting the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Coney Island is still in use, but its elevated structure is surrounded by an underused and neglected corridor that divides a diverse and complex neighborhood. Manuel Ávila founded Crown Heights Participatory Urbanism, a community-based planning and design project, to invite residents to re-imagine this passage into a series of public spaces that would unify the neighborhood. Their feedback, collected at community meetings, on local blogs, and in several notebooks strategically placed in local stores, informs designs for five sites along the corridor. With input in hand, Ávila is working with elected officials to obtain the permits and funding to realize these modest but transformative ideas.

Community Living Room

The Community Living Room project grew out of a challenge familiar to many urban communities: How can the quality of a neighborhood be improved without opening it up to gentrification? In 2002, Steve Rasmussen Cancian’s Shared Spaces Landscape Architecture and ‘Hood Builders started working
with local community members in several low-income California neighborhoods to explore the question. Drawing from the tradition in many predominantly black neighborhoods of locals gathering on stoops and street corners, often improvising seating from crates or scrap wood, the designers created groupings of outdoor furniture that make neighborhoods better for current residents in a way that might also make them less attractive to gentrifiers. They have realized dozens of outdoor living rooms in Northern and Southern California.

City Farm

It makes sense that the Resource Center, the venerable Chicago nonprofit that has led the way in innovative recycling, upcycling, and farming techniques for 35 years, would also be a pioneer in urban farming. Their mission to deflect the abundant waste in cities while improving the quality of life of urban dwellers extended naturally to agriculture. Turning neglected fallow land into sustainable farms, the center operates more than 20 productive plots that are financially self-sufficient, employs neighborhood residents, and sells vegetables on site and to local restaurants. The center’s flagship City Farm sits in the middle of a downtown housing project and has played a key role in strengthening its community. City Farm is a proven model that supports the local economy by growing food, jobs, beauty, and change.

Bench Press

In recent decades, benches started disappearing from bus stops as a way for cities to discourage homeless or loiterers. BroLab, a collaborative of artists and sculptors, created BenchPress, a modular system of temporary benches for bus stops along major bus routes between Brooklyn and Queens. While the two neighborhoods foster vibrant artistic communities, between them lies a nondescript, alienating landscape with few street amenities. BroLab’s modular benches provided the missing comfort of seating for commuters for one day in October 2011 (as part of events organized by the Congress of Collectives at Flux Factory in Queens). Between 4:00 am and 9:00 pm, they assembled, dissembled, and relocated benches that appeared at each of the route’s 80 stops.


Bubbleware is a modular, inflatable public furniture system that invites visitors to develop new forms of informal social interaction, creativity and collaboration within the often rigid structures of the city. The large and pillowy Bubbleware modules, meant for lounging and relaxing, provide a visual and tactile contrast to the typical urban hardscape. Designed by San Francisco – based art and design studio Rebar, Bubbleware modules can be reconfigured and adapted to support a variety of social encounters and informal collaborations, from small lounge spaces to aggregates that support large group gatherings. Both playful and critical, Bubbleware invites the viewer to consider the role of design in structuring our social experience of the city.

Brooklyn Night Bazaar

Motivated by the desire to create a dignified platform that elevates the flea market to the quality of its artisans, the Brooklyn Night Bazaar provides a curated environment for the best local art, design, music and food. This mobile mega- pop-up merges crafts and concerts, art and social causes, design and handmade delights while providing homegrown talent and budding entrepreneurs an inexpensive place to test their creations. Inspired by the night markets of Asia, the roving weekend-night event has taken place on a stalled development site, an industrial waterfront lot, and an empty 40,000-square-foot warehouse – the latter featuring temporary furniture designed by architect Julient De Smedt. Funds raised on Kickstarter helped finance some of the basic set-up costs.

BK Farmyards

BK Farmyards is a large decentralized urban farming network based in Brooklyn. Since its founding, the coalition of experienced urban farmers – working under the tag line, “You have the land. We grow the produce” has been flooded with requests from people with spare land, ranging from private small-lot owners to a public school principal with a full free acre to an old municipal airport. Today, BK manages several acres of land and brings healthy food directly to residents of Central Brooklyn, where many lack affordable, fresh food options and suffer from health issues related to high poverty rates. BK offers a subscription service for eggs, flowers, and vegetables, as well as adult farm training and a youth program, creating employment opportunities for locals.

Better Block

What makes some city streets thrive, while mere blocks away, others flounder? Activists Jason Roberts and Andrew Howard in Dallas wanted to propose some answers, so in 2010, they transformed a blighted street into a “better block” for 24 hours – with bike lanes, sidewalk cafes, food stalls, and other amenities. A Better Block was born. These “living charrettes” demonstrate that obsolete zoning or commerce restrictions often pose obstacles to such things as outdoor seating or music, and encourage communities to actively participate in the shaping of their own neighborhoods. City officials are now recognizing Better Block as a useful economic development tool. In the past two years, 32 Better Blocks have been realized across the U.S. by the original team and by independent community groups.