Make Ideas for the Public Realm Happen

Strategy 1: Make Ideas Happen by Leveraging the City’s Allowances

Many great ideas for the public realm have been defeated by the notion of “getting permission” before they’ve had a chance to come to life. Here are three methods for bringing ideas to life in the city.

There are a number of ways the city’s existing systems and procedures can be used to allow ideas for the public realm to come to life outside of formal notions of “permission.” Video games have “unlock codes” to advance players to another level or gain extra advantage. Cities also have unlock codes hidden in the codes and formalities of urban life that provide windows of opportunity.

1. Pay to Play

Finding a parklet—an individual parking space repurposed as a mini urban park—in a city today is about as surprising as finding someone with a beard at a craft beer festival. But at its first inception, turning a parking space into a popup park was an incredibly crafty urban hack that leveraged the city’s allowances to let one of the better ideas for the public realm become reality.

Let’s start at the beginning. In 2005, the San Francisco collective Rebar hatched a scheme to convert a parking space into a popup urban park. The chance of getting permissions to put a mini urban park on the street was stacked against them, particularly in a city like San Francisco. So Rebar changed the permissions game. 

The team realized that permission for the project was already contained in the mechanisms of the parking space: insert a few quarters into the parking meter controlling the space, and you get to use it for two hours. Once you pay for use of the space, there is little difference between putting a car there or a mini public park.

Rebar's first parklet, San Francisco 2005
Rebar’s first parklet, San Francisco 2005

Rebar leveraged the allowances of the parking space system. An allotment of time was purchased using the meter enabling the space to be used for a fixed period of time. The expectation, of course, is that the space will be used to park a car.

Rebar's first parklet, San Francisco 2005

But the opportunity comes in the broader interpretation that the user is in fact renting the street space within the marked white lines — what is done with that space during its rental is the window of opportunity inside the parking system. 

What has now become the international event PARK(ing) Day, and common tool of tactical urbanism, began with the realization that an allowance existed in the parking meter / space system that could be leveraged for additional opportunity.

2. Opportunity through Advertising

Advertising has a bad reputation for its dominance of public visual space, but it is an exceptional point of access for ideas for the public realm to be prototyped and executed with minimal bureaucratic wrangling.

Located 300 kilometers north of Stockholm, the city of Umeå, Sweden, gets only minutes of natural daylight during the winter months. Such lack of natural daylight can have a devastating impact on the mental health of both individuals and the collective population of a city.

In an effort to improve the public mood during long depressing winters, the city’s energy company Umeå Energi transformed 30 of the city’s bus stations into light therapy units, where commuters could spend a few minutes soaking up natural daylight rays from special light bulbs before continuing on their journey.

Converted bus stop to boost mental health during the winter with light therapy lamps, Umeå, Sweden.
Bus stop to boost mental health with light therapy lamps, Umeå, Sweden.

Let’s imagine this project at the proposal stage: “We’d like to create 30 light therapy stations throughout the city where people can go to have exposure to light therapy bulbs.” Even in the most forward-thinking of cities, the implied cost, permissions and liabilities represented by such an idea for the public realm would shut down the conversation before the end of the one-sentence pitch.

Reprogramming the City: Adaptive Reuse and Repurposing Urban Objects
Light Therapy Bus Stop from the book Reprogramming the City.

So the project came to life without going through any of the usual permission loops. Umeå Energi simply rented out the advertising light boxes in 30 bus stops, as any company would do to advertising a product or service.

Making ideas for the public realm happen by swapping bus stop light bulbs for light therapy

During their allotted use of the advertising space, instead of slipping in some backlit posters into the light boxes, they swapped out the bulbs, replaced them with light therapy tubes, and installed a clear sheet in the light box to let the full light through to reach people in the bus stops. After the light therapy bulbs were in place in the bus shelters, bus ridership in the city increased by 50 percent. 

The project’s agile, from-idea-to-public-installation execution is the result of the company realizing that bus stop advertising held all the components needed to execute the project, and access to those components was as simple as booking advertising space. 

3. Finding Room in the Rules

In Seville, Spain, Architect Santiago Cirugeda wanted to create a modest play space next to his apartment building for his kids and their neighborhood friends. Nothing exceptional—maybe a seesaw or a swing— just something to give kids in their dense urban neighborhood a place for play and joy.

He filed a request with the city to install a piece of playground equipment next to his apartment building. His request was denied. Cirugeda was frustrated to be denied permission for play equipment while others in his neighborhood were quickly granted permission to put a dumpster for building and remodeling debris.

He saw allowance within the rules and changed tactics by submitting an application to install a dumpster next to his house. He was granted permission to do so and the dumpster was delivered. 

Santiago Cirugeda dumpster playground

Then Cirugeda installed a seesaw inside the dumpster. Playground achieved.

The “self-built, self-managed urban playground,” as Cirugeda calls it, revealed the space for creativity available within bureaucratic rules and allowed a valuable idea for the public realm come to life. Once news and images of the project spread, dumpster hacking had a mini zeitgeist moment. In London, linings were installed in dumpsters acquired from the city to create a mini public pool in a neighborhood. Other cities saw urban gardens suddenly appear in dumpsters. 

Many municipalities inevitably responded by adding “acceptable use” clauses into their dumpster-granting permissions.

The tightening down of certain rules don’t close down avenues for creativity. Instead, they activate the municipal permission system into a game of “whack-a-mole” between cities and their citizens—an exercise that is beneficial for both the city and civic engagement.

Over to You

If you have ideas for the public realm but are frustrated by the notion of getting permission for them, find room for creativity within the rules and open it up. Some investigations will be dead ends, others will provide a revelation for what is possible within the confines of municipal control. The world becomes many times richer for each one of those revelations.

The old saying that rules are there for a reason remains true; perhaps one of those reasons is to sharpen our own creative skills to find windows of opportunity within them.

Rebar’s parklets, Umeå Energi’s Light Therapy, and Santiago Cirugeda’s dumpster playground are examples of using existing windows of allowance to bring an idea to life. Purchasing two hours of use for a parking space; renting advertising space for a period of time; getting permission to install a dumpster and then using it as a base for play equipment—all are wedges that slipped into a crack in the system and opened it for innovative ideas.

What systems can you think of that contain an allowance that can be used for additional use?

Next In the Series: Strategy 2: Create Space Within Limitations

This Could: Creating Opportunity from Limited Resources

To learn a lot more about the power of conditional thinking, my latest book This Could: How Two Words Can Create Opportunity in an Era of Limited Resources will be of interest.

If discovering opportunity from existing assets interests you, you might enjoy my latest book This Could: How Two Words Can Create Opportunity in an Era of Limited Resources.

Header image: Circle by Kirby Wu from the Noun Project.