Scott Burnham Interview in Totally Stockholm Magazine

Revealing the Hidden Potential of the City: Interview

Below is an interview I gave to Totally Stockholm Magazine when Reprogramming the City opened at ARKDES, Stockholm, Sweden.

As the article’s author Peter Steen-Christensen 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 … 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.”

Cities contain a vast amount of untapped possibilities. Scott Burnham, an urban strategist from Boston, is the curator behind Arkdes’ new summer exhibition Reprogramming the City. His mission is to reveal the city’s hidden potential.

Existing cities are swelling to the brink of overpopulation and as a consequence we face new challenges. To offset some of these challenges, we need to rethink the way we use the limited space we have to create a highly livable future for our cities. And while we cannot be sure exactly what the city of the future will entail, what we do know is we will see quite drastic change. We’ll have “smart cities” – using digital technologies to enhance the inhabitant’s quality of life, cities designed, or redesigned, with urban sustainability in mind, and most probably cities that will implement new thinking to reuse already existing infrastructure to alter the mechanism of the city. A prime example of new use from existing structures that we all know is New York’s High Line. A disused elevated railroad turned into a park that has become a main tourist attraction and a great destination for locals out for a stroll.

Urban strategist Scott Burnham has worked with various projects in seven cities in five countries over the last 16 years; he is convinced that the modern urban area of today hides large untapped possibilities within its confines. And it’s obviously not only repurposing of 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. While being aware that cities and the people within them are rooted in nostalgia and not always privy to change we are fully on board and see a platform of opportunity and a base for a new creative process.

You have worked with the Reprogramming the City concept for a while in a number of cities. Have you seen the initiative inspire and instigate change?

Absolutely. Reprogramming the City is always a catalyst for new ways of thinking in every city it appears in. The urban elements at the core of each project are universal to almost every city on the planet – bus stops, bridges, scaffolding, streetlights. Because of this universal visual language, people look at the exhibition and think, “If scaffolding in New York can turn into a public seating area, why can’t scaffolding in Stockholm do that?” Or, “If a billboard in Lima, Peru can produce clean drinking water and grow food for residents, and another one in Los Angeles can clean the air, why does outdoor advertising in Sweden *only* sell things?”

There are dozens of these examples throughout the exhibition, and each one causes the viewer to ask “What if we did that in my city? What else could my city do with what it already has?”

To give you a very specific example of how it has inspired change, at the Reprogramming the City premiere at the Boston Society of Architects in 2013, I ran a workshop asking people to think of additional functions the existing structures of the city could do. One person sketched out an idea for a fire hydrant that could provide water for the fire services but *also* could be a public drinking fountain to reduce the use of disposable water bottles in cities. Two years later, that project became real.

At ArkDes, that project, now called “Project Borneo”, will be displayed for the first time in a Reprogramming the City exhibition. I think that is a beautiful development – an idea that was inspired by one version of of the exhibition becomes real, and now returns as part of the project in Stockholm. There are many more examples of change inspired by the project – I have great confidence that Stockholm will keep that tradition alive.

One of the reasons Reprogramming the City resonates so strongly in each city is that it isn’t a traditional touring exhibition where the same work is shown, boxed up, and unpacked at the next venue. I create a new version of the project for each city it appears in, with a focus on projects coming from that city and country that show exceptional ways we can re-imagine what already exists in our city for new uses. The version of Reprogramming the City people will see at ArkDes is unique to Stockholm.

What are the most inspiring multi-use ideas that you have come across?

In some ways, that is like asking a parent to name their favorite child… there are so many wonderfully inspiring projects. But a few that come to mind is the UTEC Water Billboard – a billboard in Lima, Peru, that turns the humidity in the air into clean drinking water for residents outside the city who lack easy access to clean drinking water. Later, this billboard was expanded to become Air Orchard, using that clean water to grow food for residents. Both of these projects will be on display in ArkDes. Another of my favorites is Swedish in origin – Ljusterapi (Light Therapy) from Umeå. Here, Umeå Energi replaced the light bulbs in some of the city’s bus stops with “light therapy” bulbs, so commuters could stand in front of them and soak up some good light rays during the dark winter months, when there is little access to natural daylight.

When you made the call out to Swedish architects, urban planners and designers to come in with their suggestions and ideas – what was the response?

The response was huge. There were so many projects that came forward, proving my long-held belief that there is a tremendous amount of creativity and innovation in every city just waiting for a public platform to share those ideas. Many of those projects revealed by the open call will be on display at ArkDes.

I suppose ideas span from almost fantasy to the small-scale, things that are a bit easier to implement. From your point of view what are the most interesting things to work with, things that can make a change right now or more ambitious projects that can do even greater good but some way down the line?

The most important thing to stress is that in Reprogramming the City, there is nothing that is pure fantasy. Every project I’ve assembled could happen. Some would require more work and dedication from cities than others, but nothing is pure fantasy – all the ideas are within reach. There are always some projects that are more easily attainable projects than others. Things like Softwalks in New York, the project that designed chairs, benches and tables that attach to existing scaffolding structures. That is very quick and easy – 15 minutes set-up, 15 minutes take-down, using nothing more than a wrench to install it to the existing structures. With that, any scaffolding in Stockholm could be an area for office workers or shoppers to stop, rest, have lunch, read, etc. Then there are projects like BuzzBuilding by Stockholm’s Belatchew Arkitekter that has come up with a way to repurpose existing roundabouts in Stockholm into future food production areas. When you look at the scale of the project it seems adventurous, but at the heart of it is a very real question – why is all that area inside roundabouts wasted as only a circular area for cars to go around? What *more* could it do for the city? BuzzBuilding is one idea for roundabouts to do more for Stockholm than turn cars around.

In some cases cities and people might not be ready for this new way of thinking, what do you feel is the one thing needed to get the ball rolling?

I firmly believe that cities don’t have much choice – they owe it to their citizens to be ready for this way of thinking and embrace it as a resourceful way forward to deal with some of the most pressing urban problems. The one thing to get the ball rolling is this simple fact: urban populations are growing – Stockholm is one of Europe’s most rapidly-growing urban populations. But cities have a limited amount of land, and by definition, there are only so many structures and spaces our cities can contain. So by thinking about doing more with the structures, surfaces and systems already in place in the city is an obvious way forward. Why should any object or space do only one thing when it could do something more to improve the life of residents in the city? To put it another way: the content in the city is limited, but the context of how we use that content is not. By looking at something – a bench, a rooftop, a public advertisement, a bus stop, anything, and asking what *more* could it do, is the first step toward a more resourceful, more efficient city, and that benefits everyone.

How did this whole thing, this concept come about? I know you created the *Urban Guide For Alternate Use* a few years ago which is along the same lines but what were the key points leading to this concept.

To explain more broadly about The Urban Guide for Alternate Use and Reprogramming the City… I am fortunate that my work takes me to cities all over the world. When I am not working hands-on on a project in a city, I can usually be found exploring the margins of the city for innovations that are being done outside the formal “radar” that most use when looking at urban design and development.

*The Urban Guide For Alternate Use* was an early look at the way DIY initiatives were modifying the function of urban structures and spaces. There were so many powerful statements in the guide of exploring the dormant potential of objects, all done individually and in the margins of the city, outside of any official channels. *The Urban Guide For Alternate Use* was a great success when it premiered in Berlin years ago, but I felt the concept was only in its infancy at that point, and had a much broader potential to change things in a very real way – to apply the same principles of re-imagining the capabilities of urban assets at the official city level with large projects done in a more formal manner.

In 2010, my work brought me to Hong Kong, where I began investigating a new spirit of urban resourcefulness and innovation that was beginning to appear in the built environment of the city in more “formal” official ways – examples of how repurposing and reuse was beginning to be seen as a viable design approach to rethinking the urban landscape.

During my research in Hong Kong I came across The Cascade, a “plug-in” mini urban park that attaches to a public stairway in one of the densest areas of Hong Kong. My photograph of The Cascade appears in the ArkDes exhibition, and marks the formal starting point for what would take me around the world, twice, to discover other examples of how this spirit of reprogramming the functions of the existing city’s structures, surfaces and systems was beginning to reshape the urban landscape, and the language of urban design.

Reprogramming the City is the product of those years of travel and research, which still goes on every day. It is a quest that, wonderfully, never stops – for example, over a dozen projects in the ArkDes exhibition are brand new to Reprogramming the City and have never appeared in a previous version.

How do you see this concept growing and what spin-off projects do you hope to be working on in the future?

I am currently working on the Reprogramming the City book, which will be the definitive guide to these projects and how they are reshaping the urban landscape and changing the way we approach design and the city. Also in the works is “How to Reprogram a City,” something of a user’s guide for how this approach can be adopted by cities and urban planners and designers to achieve a more resourceful approach to engaging with the existing urban environment – again, to design *with* the city, and not just for it.

I am in discussions with a city I can’t disclose yet about doing this on a large scale, working with a team of architects to re-think the potential for the city’s existing assets instead of the usual approach of just removing what is there and starting over. In addition to the individual hackathons and workshops I run in different cities (and yes, there are plans for me to do one in Stockholm), there is a steady stream of projects in development to grow and spread the reprogramming mentality to other cities.