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.

SVT Stockholm Interviews Scott Burnham on Reprogramming the City

Interview with Sweden National TV News

With Reprogramming the City: Stockholm up and running at ArkDes, it’s time to share some of the gloss from the media coverage. Below is a short feature and interview with me about the project that was featured on Sweden’s SVT National News. Towards the end I talk about what sets the Stockholm project apart for me.

Reprogramming the City has really resonated with Stockholm and national Swedish media. It never gets old to be flipping through a paper at breakfast and come across an article about your work in the city.

This was staring back at me one morning in the pages of Dagens Nyheter, Sweden's largest daily:
This was staring back at me one morning in Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s largest daily.

The headline? “The American who wants to make you feel good in town.” Ah, Google Translate, you do know how to flatter.

For Swedish speakers (and those with Google Translate at the ready), the article can be found online here.

Tranebergsbron Bridge, Stockholm, Vision Divisiom

Reprogramming the City: Stockholm, Launching June 2015

I am very pleased to share the news that the next version of Reprogramming the City will launch in June 2015 at the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design (ArkDes) in Stockholm, Sweden.

I’ve just returned from laying the foundations for the project there, and am particularly excited about this iteration of Reprogramming the City. ArkDes is a great institution with a very talented team, an enormous exhibition space and public outreach, which will enable the project to be experienced at an entirely new scale.

If you’re new to the project, Reprogramming the City is an exploration of ideas, prototypes and proposals for how the existing structures, surfaces and systems of the city can be repurposed and re-imagined to do more than their original function. It is about looking at the existing assets of the city and asking “What More” could they do, and “What If” the city did more with the things it already has.

Reprogramming the City is about experiencing the hidden potential of the city.

The word experience is an important one to highlight in the context of the Stockholm project. The focus at ArkDes is going to be about directly experiencing repurposed and re-imagined urban structures, surfaces and systems. Information and imagination are vital, but touching, feeling and sensing new urban ideas makes potential seem probable.

Among many meetings there last week, I had the pleasure to meet with Rahel Belatchew Lerdell of Belatchew Arkitekter, the firm behind Buzz Building, a proposed repurposing of an existing Stockholm roundabout into a future food source for the city (below). The project has been a favorite of mine since I first came across it, and plans are underway to make Buzz Building an exceptional experience within Reprogramming the City. I’m not giving any spoilers away just yet, but it’s going to be pretty fantastic.

Buzz Building by Belatchew Arkitekter
Buzz Building by Belatchew Arkitekter: Re-imagining an existing Stockholm roundabout (left) as a future food source for the city (right).

More news will come as the project develops. Any questions or want to know more? Please do get in touch.

Scott Burnham giving an overview of Reprogramming the City, Danish Architecture Centre, Copenhagen

Video Overview of Reprogramming the City at Danish Architecture Centre, Copenhagen


The promotional video for Reprogramming the City: Opportunities for Urban Infrastructure at the Danish Architecture Centre, Copenhagen, Denmark. Produced by the DAC, it offers a succinct visual and narrative overview of the show, so I thought I would share it here.

For more information on Reprogramming the City, visit the DAC website here, or read my previous post on the project’s development here.

Reprogramming the City billboard in Copenhagen

Reprogramming the City Goes to Copenhagen

The ways in which Reprogramming the City: Opportunities for Urban Infrastructure has resonated since its launch in Boston last year  at the Boston Society of Architects BSA Space Gallery has been fantastic.

I had the opportunity to talk to mayors from around the world about leveraging the potential of existing urban assets, and was invited to share some ideas on the topic in pieces published in The Guardian, Architizer, The Boston Globe and other places – it’s been a great period of time. While it’s hard to pick a high point from the list, a strong candidate is on the horizon as the project now goes to Copenhagen.

The Danish Architecture Centre in Copenhagen has asked me to create an updated and expanded version of Reprogramming the City for them. The new version will open on October 1, 2014 at the DAC, Strandgade 27B, Copenhagen, Denmark. There’s a lot to be excited about in the Copenhagen version. A range of new projects will be featured, with a focus on some great initiatives for repurposing urban infrastructure being done in Denmark and Scandinavia. (More info here; and a virtual tour of the venue is here.)

New projects include “Under the Bridge” a proposal by Vision Division to create a pedestrian walkway on the concrete vault of the Tranebergsbron bridge in Stockholm, Sweden, with the covered areas beneath the bridge becoming public entertainment areas for film festivals and cultural events.

Also coming from Stockholm is a bold idea to safeguard future urban food supplies. BuzzBuilding, by Belathew Labs, aim to make Stockholm self-sufficient in protein by transforming the city’s traffic roundabouts into a series of insect farms and bee sanctuaries under their InsectCity project which embraces a number of infrastructural elements of the city as potential food production areas.

Growing Underground, London, UK
Growing Underground, London, UK

There is considerable momentum in the field of repurposing urban infrastructure for food production, as a number of projects along these lines make their entrance into the Reprogramming the City arena. Rooftop farms are represented with Copenhagen’s impressive ØsterGro, while at the other end of the spectrum is Growing Underground, a new initiative that uses disused deep level London Underground tunnels as growing areas to produce local food for London today, and a climate safe growing environment for the future.

Urban Air by Stephen Glassman
Urban Air by Stephen Glassman

Also featured will be new images and updated project information from projects such as Urban Air (above) and a range of other projects that were part of the project’s Boston premiere.

The new and expanded version of Reprogramming the City: New Opportunities for Urban Infrastructure is an exciting move forward for the project, and establishes an EU-specific version of the exhibition to continue on to other European venues.

Scott Burnham delivering the keynote on maximizing available urban resources at MIPIM Global Mayors Think Tank, Cannes, France

“Nations talk. Cities act.” Five Insights from the MIPIM Mayor’s Think Tank in Cannes

Gathering of Mayors and City Officials at MIPIM Mayor’s Think Tank. Credit: MIPIM

For those who wonder what is on the mind of the world’s mayors, last week’s MIPIM Mayor’s Think Tank in Cannes, France was a rare opportunity to discover just that. In the Salon Royan of the Cannes Majestic Hotel, mayors and officials from cities around the world gathered to talk about what their cities were doing, what issues were important to them, and to hear some new ideas for cities from me and how to get the funding to make them happen.

The day kicked off with my opening keynote outlining ideas and strategies to leverage the potential of existing urban assets, with a specific focus on maximizing the potential of existing infrastructure.

As part of a nicely put together program, I was followed by John D. Macomber from the Harvard Business School who oultined strategies for private investment in infrastructure projects. Following this one-two combination of “here’s some ideas … and here’s how you can pay for them”, the heart of the session opened up as the mayors discussed, workshopped and reported out the key topics on their minds.

“There are opportunities within the problems.”

Below is a selection of themes that were shared at the end as the chairs of each subgroup reported out. Though cities face a vast array of problems, Dr. Arab Hoballah, Chief Sustainable Consumption and Production of the United Nations Environment Programme [UNEP], summed up the spirit of the day: “There are opportunities within the problems.”

1. City Autonomy: Let the Cities Decide

In my keynote, I touched on the topic of distributed infrastructure and how cities can become more resilient and resourceful by decentralizing systems. This became part of a much larger focus on decentralization of great importance to mayors – that of City Autonomy and the need to decentralize cities from central government control.

“The world,” said Bernard Brochand, Mayor of Cannes, “will be saved by the mayors. You are the only ones who know the problems, know the avenues to prosperity.”

“We have to work on resource efficient cities, and the message we’d like to give is that local public incentive, investment and control on policies is very important to build resource efficient cities. In particular, cities should be able to decide – and it is important that they are the ones to decide – the operator who is going to deliver the service to the people, whether it be a local public company or a private company.” *

“It is important to be able to control the way the services are built and that sustainable solutions are invented by local actors.”

“Central control is stifling innovation and investment.”

“It’s not only about more money it is about being in control of how you spend it.”

“Autonomy should offer the potential and capacity of cities to be more autonomous in terms of energy production and energy supply. Consider the buildings first, and then the rest of the city as a provider of energy, not only a consumer. It is a great opportunity that mayors have not fully embraced.”

2. The Potential of City Regions Transcends National Borders

Cross-border collaborations have an immense amount of potential that can be thwarted by the limitations of national borders. Across the street in the Palais des Festivals, this was fully demonstrated in an intriguing city pavilion: The Copenhagen Malmo Region – a collaborative initiative for development and investment that transcends the respective borders of Denmark and Sweden to view the neighboring cities as a single entity of opportunity. “More than Scandinavia,” as their PR material says. It was a theme playing out elsewhere in the world.

“Cities are older than states.”

Cieszyn, Czech Republic and Cieszyn, Poland, are just across the border [from each other]. They have the same issues to deal with. So they can cooperate and exchange ideas on how they do it – regenerating brown field sites, transforming the old coal mining industry into something new. The same thing between Copenhagen and Malmo. Malmo is known by those in Copenhagen as being a good example of waste management, where Copenhagen has other things to offer, so the cooperation is very important.”

The justification for this also lies at the basis of the “Ljubljana Forum”. As Miran Gajsek, Head of Urban Planning for Ljubljana noted, “Cities are older than states.”

3. Early, Clear, Collaborative Thinking Cures Complexity

“It is vital to have clarity and collaboration in terms of governance, especially between investment and planning, and the relationships between levels of government.”

“Quality and clarity of leadership is needed for outside investment.”

“Thinking on Scott’s keynote presentation outlining the opportunities in current urban assets, the key is that you need to dissect this process in order to assess the hidden value in the different component parts of the infrastructure. The importance is to include into this thinking very early on in the planning the growing social inequalities in the city.”

4. Great ideas are everywhere. Communication makes them work.

“There’s a lot of vibrancy of ideas coming from the public sector and the private sector, but not everywhere is the demand in society right enough to make them actually work – to make them work at scale where they can really make a difference. The key thing is how you tell the story.”

“As a city, you have to tell the story. Think about how the citizens are going to perceive, understand and appreciate what it is you are trying to do. Think about what this means in terms of work within the city, between different departments and how you engage the people in your communication department early enough on in the process to be able to integrate this thinking on communicating to the citizens, which is perhaps the most important part.”

“Technology, infrastructure, resource management… it’s still about citizens. It’s still about how this is communicated.”

“We usually call on citizens to be more proactive, and to think more of the future, the next generation and so on, but the greatest incentive to them is when we show them that they are going to reduce their personal expenditures, for example, how they are going to save money using public transport. That is more efficient than calling for good behavior in everyone.”

“The highest tech solutions will not work if you don’t have ‘take-up’ – if the citizens don’t understand the value that is in it for them.”

5. Developing Cities Need to be Part of the Conversation

“There are no sustainability solutions if developing cities aren’t part of the conversation. Developing cities have to be invited if global sustainability has a chance. If things go wrong in those cities, what we do here won’t matter.”


* Unattributed quotes are table summaries from the moderators, so individual attribution has not been given.