NatureStructure: Nature as Urban Infrastructure

Now that the ink is dry on the contract, I want to introduce NatureStructure, a new project commissioned by the Boston Society of Architects Foundation and my next large initiative.

NatureStructure is a framework of ideas for a new generation of urban infrastructure that uses nature and natural systems as essential elements of the city.

For too long, cities have sought to control nature. From burying rivers to building sprawling housing and commercial developments over wetlands and forested areas, urban environments have historically been statements of dominion over the natural world. Yet sea level rise, increasingly devastating and frequent natural storms, floods, droughts and a changing climate shows that efforts to battle and isolate the city from nature can be futile at best, and fatalistic acts of ego at worst.

NatureStructure represents an alternative relationship between nature and the city. It shows how natural systems can be woven into the most functional elements of the city to enable the city to function as a living system that works with the power of nature rather than doing battle with it. NatureStructure goes beyond green roofs and vertical gardens, showing how cities can address issues from water generation and treatment to treating brownfield sites, generating energy and mitigating pollution by harnessing nature and natural processes and using them as essential tools of urban infrastructure.

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” – Lao Tzu

This new generation of nature-centric infrastructure includes the “Sand Engine”, a system that uses the tide to distribute sand along the Netherland’s urbanized coastline to reverse erosion and protect against sea level rise, a “bee highway” (pictured above) in Norway that feeds and nurtures endangered pollinators as they migrate across built-up areas, a bridge in Geneva that uses algae to consume the CO2 of passing cars and transform it into nutrient-rich food source, an initiative in Amsterdam using roadside devices containing honeysuckle to mitigate car pollution, and many more. NatureStructure presents a new model for urban systems, showing how reconnecting the city to nature and natural process is essential for a resilient, sustainable and livable urban future.

NatureStructure will premiere at the Boston Society of Architect’s BSA Space Gallery in Spring 2018 before moving on to other cities, much in the same way Reprogramming the City has since its Boston premiere. NatureStructure research and fieldwork is underway. A dedicated website will be launched shortly.

“Human subtlety will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple or more direct than does nature because in her inventions nothing is lacking, and nothing is superfluous.” – Leonardo da Vinci

If you have a project you’d like to suggest for NatureStructure or would like to register your interest in having NatureStructure come to your city or have me come talk about it, please get in touch here.

New Project for 2017: Note of Appreciation

In the first few days of 2017, I find myself thinking a lot about my work and how I spend my time. I realize all that is seen and shared publicly is the end result. The product of my engagements – the initiatives, exhibitions, talks, and published works.

There is so much more that goes on and is created outside of those moments that I don’t share. 2017 is the year I’d like to change that.

I’d like to introduce my first project of 2017 along these lines: Note of Appreciation, a series of my writings that celebrate exceptional stories held by everyday urban objects.

My work obviously requires me to spend a lot of time in a lot of cities; researching, writing, consulting, curating. When I’m on the road and the workday is done in whatever city I’m in, I spend every free moment exploring the city. Experiencing, discovering and being part of the stories the city holds. I can say without much exaggeration that I go through as many shoes as I do notebooks and memory cards in the course of a year as a result of my fairly obsessive urban explorations.

Back at the hotel my time exploring the city usually results in what I’ve come to call a “Note of Appreciation” – a tribute to something in the city that holds a particularly interesting story that isn’t being told, or something that I found resonated with my own history and story.

Throughout 2017, I will be posting them on a dedicated area of my website:

I have written hundreds of these pieces, and will select some of my favorites to share each week. Some revel in the largely forgotten history of specific urban elements, such as the fences in South London that are made from repurposed WWII stretchers. Others become part of my own story – the magnificent Yves Klein Blue of an empty advertising billboard on the Madrid Metro that brings me back to an early project with London’s National Theatre for World Aids Day.

The one common thread throughout all of them is to show that some of the most commonplace and functional of urban objects hold exceptional stories. Not only for me, but for the city and so many personal histories. Yet time is rarely taken to appreciate them, or to document the stories they contain. Note of Appreciation is a long-time project of mine to do so that now deserves its own presence.

I hope you will visit the site and I hope you will enjoy the stories over the coming year. If you do, please subscribe for Note of Appreciation updates so we can keep in touch and I can let you know when new posts (and the eventual book) are available.

Thanks for reading,


The Power of “This Could Be…”

During recent talks in Oslo and Malmö, I’ve been showing how a simple shift in thinking can open awareness and generate new possibilities. My goal in that specific part of the presentation is to get audiences to expand their thinking about how existing urban assets could be used in different ways, but the “conditional thinking” approach is an inspiring mindset to have when approaching anything, so I wanted to expand on it here.


Look at the image above and say to yourself “This could be a rubber band.” For some, this might seem a ridiculous statement. “It obviously is a rubber band”, comes the reply. Which is exactly the mindset we’re trying to move beyond. By using a conditional description of the object, we open a channel of awareness in our minds; if this “could be” one thing, then it could be other things as well.

This is more than one of the many ideas that come to me at 35,000 feet while flying on my way to a talk; there’s solid research behind it.

Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer performed an experiment showing how conditional thinking expands our awareness of possibilities. Two groups of participants performed an exercise in which they made errors while using a pencil. One group was given a rubber band and told “This is a rubber band.” In that group, 3% realized that the rubber band could also be used as an eraser.

The other group, having also made errors with a pencil, were given a rubber band, but in this group, it was introduced with the statement “This could be a rubber band.” Of that group, 40% realized that it could also be used to erase their mistakes.

As Langer and her co-author Alison Piper summarize, by using “a simple linguistic variation” [this could be instead of this is] “a different need was then generated for which the object in question was not explicitly suited but could fulfill.”

Imagine the possibilities if the mindset were applied to all the existing structures, surfaces and systems that make up the city, or for that matter, any of the objects and assets we come in contact with every day. That’s what my current initiative, Reprogramming the City, is all about, and is pretty much the foundation for all the work I’ve done around the world: doing more with what we already have by expanding awareness of the tremendous possibilities inherent in the every day.

For example, most cities look at billboards and say “This is a billboard. This is a source of revenue.”


But in areas of Lima, Peru in desperate need of fresh drinking water, an agency looked at a billboard and said “This could be a structure to harvest and provide fresh drinking water for citizens.”

UTEC Water Billboard
UTEC Water Billboard, Lima, Peru

It all begins by simply introducing ourselves to things with a conditional mindset: “This could be…”

The possibilities are endless when we carry that perception of the world with us.

We all once had this outlook as children – any thing could be anything in the rich imagination we possessed at one time. For most, the power of that imagination gets pushed deep down and is sometimes lost as we grow and learn. I’m a firm believer that it is still there in all of us, and sometimes it takes nothing more than allowing us to approach the world with a “this could be…” mindset.

I’ll let the words of Langer and Piper drop the mic and close the post:

“When subjects were asked explicitly to generate novel uses for the target items, they had no difficulty doing so. However, given the way we are traditionally taught, it simply does not occur to us to think creatively unless explicitly instructed to do so.”

Workshop: Resourceful Design Innovation by Re-imagining Existing Urban Assets






The course I teach for the University of British Columbia is being offered again this year as an online workshop, and registration is now open. As UBC describes it…

In this workshop we look at the potential of reusing, repurposing, and re-imagining a wide variety of urban assets, including existing infrastructure, materials, buildings, structures, systems, and even utilizing the skill sets of municipal employees in new ways. The workshop progresses from smaller examples of repurposing of material and street structures to larger issues of how to re-imagine Main Streets / High Streets and areas of post-industrial cities. It combines practical case studies with analytical observations and hands-on examples from the instructor’s own international projects that use existing urban materials, structures and systems in new ways to increase their functionality and to improve the daily lives of urban residents.

The first of three, 2-hour sessions lead by me will be held on September 6, 2016.

Registration closes August 23, 2016.

For more information, the course listing and registration information can be found on the UBC website here.

Reprogramming the City Stockholm What If

Stockholm’s “What If” Campaign for Reprogramming the City

Stockholm communication agency Le Bureau put together a video overview of their campaign for my Reprogramming the City initiative at ArkDes, the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design.

The agency did a fantastic job of taking the central “What If…” catalyst behind the project and amplifying it across media, outdoor billboards and interactive displays, creating an app for public participation and idea generation, all tightly woven around Reprogramming the City: Stockholm.

Scott Burnham Design With the City Not For It

Delivering “The Big Chance” Lecture for American Planning Association, Chicago

On Thursday, October 1, 2015 I will be delivering the latest lecture in The American Planning Association’s “The Big Chance” lecture series in Chicago.

In The Big Chance series, the APA (American Planning Association) selects leading voices in urban strategy and design and invites them to Chicago to present their work and viewpoints to a gathering of professionals at the APA headquarters. Other APA chapters throughout the US will have the opportunity to view a recording of the lecture at a later date. I’m honored to be the one invited for this leg of the series.

I will be speaking about the big ideas behind Reprogramming the City and the benefits that a more resourceful, resilient method of leveraging the potential of existing urban infrastructure, structures, surfaces and systems can have on cities today and tomorrow.

The lecture is free and open to the public. To reserve tickets, go here.

Full listings information is provided below:

The Big Chance: Reprogramming the City
October 1, 2015, 6 p.m. CT
205 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1200, Chicago

Please join APA for a free lecture by urban strategist, Scott Burnham, who will discuss his Reprogramming the City project. Reprogramming the City is a global exploration of ways in which existing urban objects, structures, surfaces and systems are being re-imagined, repurposed, and reinvented to do more in the city. It is about revealing the hidden potential of the urban assets we already have at hand.

Scott Burnham Interview in Totally Stockholm Magazine

Interview in Totally Stockholm magazine

For English readers, I thought I’d share a piece of media coverage from Reprogramming the City: Stockholm that doesn’t require Google Translate. Totally Stockholm magazine ran a nice interview with me where I dig deep to talk about the inspiration and motivations behind Reprogramming the City. As the journalist introduces the piece:

“Burnham is convinced that the modern urban area of today hides large untapped possibilities within its confines … it’s not only repurposing disused industrial lots but an idea to implement multi-use functions to existing spaces and structures. To look into the possibilities here in Stockholm he made a call to Stockholm-based architects, designers and urban planners, and the result, along with examples from all around the world, will be showcased at Arkitektur-och Designcentrum this summer when *Reprogramming the City – Opportunities for Urban Infrastructure* will explore a new paradigm of urban creativity and resourcefulness.

Burnham quotes the late comedian Bill Hicks: “The next revolution will be a revolution of ideas” and hopes for a revolution in how we think about the potential for the existing urban landscape.

Any interview when I can get into the origin story of Reprogramming the City and get a Bill Hicks quote in is a good interview. You can read it in its entirety here.