Cities have always contained flexible, temporary elements that allow for special events, emergencies, wars, disasters or mass migrations. What distinguished American urbanism, as distinct from Asian or European, was the speed at which a modern, industrial metropolis like Chicago, New York or Detroit could pop-up and then shrink, even disappear. Indeed, the history of American urbanism can be understood as a history of pop-ups at different scales.

The small population of the continent and ease of migration across a single country meant that Americans were perpetually on the move, moving on average once every 7 years. American cities grew and shrank with each shift in government or commercial policy favoring shipping, canals, railways, roads, airways or airwaves. The public space of the nation constantly morphed, as ghost towns and dead malls littered the continent.

Americans have always had to adjust at a personal level to these shifts, seeking communal solutions to common problems, through associations of various kinds based on particular issues. This self-help, do-it-yourself, communal tradition, often shielded by academic, labor or religious freedoms, provided the background to such pop-up organizations as the Civil Rights, anti-war, pro-democracy movements of the 1960s and 70s. At Woodstock, the pop-up instant city, rock and roll provided the anthems for the nomadic youth culture of the period. The streets and squares of the metropolis provided the background venue for the marches and other public protests, covered in full by the regulated media monopolies of the day.

The political pop-ups of the 1960’s sought to address the faults of the emerging consumer society of the 1950’s, itself a pop-up culture fueled by the excess industrial capacity and oil production created in the previous decade’s war effort. During WWII, workers in Seattle lived in mobile homes around new aircraft factories and shopped at temporary, wood-framed, prototype shopping malls. Young architects like Victor Gruen, who designed these open-air mini-malls, went on to develop this new public space morphology across America. Wood-framed buildings housed the first MacDonald’s on the commercial strips that popped up to serve the huge, on-site, industrial production line housing estates, like the 440,000-acre Levittown (1947–51) on Long Island (near a Grumman aircraft factory). 40 million Americans moved to these pop-up, timber-framed suburbs in 15 years, and then kept moving, further and further out along expanding highway systems, draining the inner city of taxes, jobs and industry.

In 1961, Jean Gottmann described the American East Coast suburban dream pop-up as one of the wonders of the world, the “megalopolis” stretching 400 miles from Boston to Washington, where 32 million people lived in peace, with a higher standard of living than ever before. Subsequent urban riots and pop-up political events of the late 1960s made Jane Jacobs’ calls for an alternative to inner city Urban Renewal demolition (also 1961) seem the more prescient vision. Jacobs wrote as artist’s studios popped into the vacant industrial loft spaces of SoHo in the path of Robert Moses’ unbuilt Lower Manhattan Expressway.  Hidden behind darkened windows to conceal illegal living, a new culture popped up with love-ins, be-ins, performance artists and Beat Poets, inevitably commercialized in Andy Warhol’s The Factory on the Lower East Side. Developers soon learned to capitalize on this “arts led” pop-up development trend, following artists and young people as they opened new galleries, restaurants or bars in declining low-rent industrial areas.

With the malling and fragmentation of the United States in carefully regulated new public spaces, a new kind of official, commercial pop-up became the norm. Boston’s Faneuil Hall Festival Market Mall (1976) showed the way, with its historic preservation and licensed carts for small-scale vendors.  The same logic followed in temporary street closures and pop-up festivals in major cities. This movement in its turn spawned the pop-up farmer’s market movement in American streets and suburban parking lots. When America’s drive-in cinemas became decimated with the growth of television in the 1980s and 90s, pop-ups again sometimes provided a solution, like the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop, the largest flea market drive-in cinema in the world. In cities like Austin, Los Angeles, and Portland, the combination of youth culture and underused inner city parking lots produced the gourmet food truck craze, now exported around the nation.

As American personal mobility slowly becomes impacted by rising global gasoline prices, once frowned-upon inner-city locations become attractive venues easily accessible for pedestrians, cyclists and public transportation customers.  Public space that was once occupied by the car becomes available for other citizens, as in New York, where Transportation Commissioner Janet Zadick-Khan realized that taking out parking spaces, widening sidewalks, making bike lanes, planting trees and issuing licenses for pop-up cafes could radically alter the auto-based street culture.

The beauty of American pop-ups is their immediacy and apparent spontaneity. But usually they are complex phenomena operating at a variety of levels, involving many participants with varied short-term and long-term strategic goals. Times Square was first closed with beach furniture and folding chairs, restricting traffic flow, before being permanently transformed with more permanent landscaping and benches. A pop-up food park in a parking lot in Austin or Portland may serve in a mutually beneficial relationship with the bar nextdoor, while impacting the character of the city itself, in the company of new zoning for street life and cafes, and a light rail line sponsoring clusters of stylish apartment buildings around its stops, far from the malls. Pop-up culture offers a very different often pedestrian and bicycle-based vision of the American urban future.