In these difficult times of division, social spaces are more important than ever. But after a century of heading in the wrong direction we’ve got a lot of work to do before the places we live are once again places for people, not “precarious perches in a sea of noise, fumes, and dirt” (Donald Appleyard).
It’s not easy to make change. Bureaucracy rules the land. Improving the public realm takes time-consuming and expensive design and approval processes. This approach needs to become obsolete. There’s no need to take so long and spend so much. We can throw down cheap and easy upgrades, tinker with them until they’re just right, and then replace them with long term alternatives when the time is right.
In fact, this is happening everywhere and always has been. During my recent bicycle touring through Europe it was fascinating to see this Lighter Quicker Cheaper (LQC) approach used in many towns and cities. Here are some great LQC installations from across the pond, ones which could be easily implemented here in the US…
1. Small dining spaces
These cheap approaches to defining space help cafes and restaurants spill out onto the street, improving business and providing a more stimulating experience for passersby. Cities that attract people to linger outside will eventually attract even more people who are drawn to the spectacle of people-watching.
Umbrellas and wooden palettes – upgraded with wheels and small planter boxes – are just enough to define this small and charming dining space. Simple and cheap.
A more upscale installation than the previous one but the same concept. Here, a visually permeable fence is combined with umbrellas supported from the side to leave maximum space for maneuverability in the center. Small planter boxes with colorful flowers add a softer touch.
This great little spot uses densely-packed chairs and tables and umbrellas, carpet (color-coordinated with the tablecloths), and two large existing palm trees to enhance space definition. Menus on blackboards streamline the customer experience.
Here’s a costlier and less flexible but larger and sturdier option than the Albissola Marina approach. This set up provides maximum sun protection and racks of planter boxes for vertical space definition and color.
These great raised seats transform a street-deadening blank wall into a social space. People sitting are oriented to face folks passing by, creating a socially-oriented dynamic.
2. Small retail
Paying for a brick and mortar location is too costly for many small entrepreneurs. With LQC retail it’s easier to access the market with more niche offerings. These small installations also allow goods to “spill out” more than most traditional retail locations, and can enliven previously dull areas.
L’Aquila is still rebuilding from an earthquake in 2009 (after which a local geologist was imprisoned for not predicting the earthquake – not cool). These wooden shacks are temporary installations to spur local commerce while the city center gets back in its feet. All goods are on the outside of the shop instead of the inside, providing a most visual experience.
A smaller and cuter version of the L’Aquila installation. Look at how much detail there is here, how every nook and cranny is used. This level of detail is what makes a place great for people.
This is a fully-fledged book and poster store but still housed in a temporary structure, helping to add interest to this otherwise dull spot in Lucca.
This bicycle-powered market stand, adding small-scale made-by-hand charm. Imagine a whole street of this kind of vendor – small, unique, local offerings without the need for larger vehicles to have to pull in and out.
3. Pedestrian street infill
Pedestrianizing streets is not only politically challenging but also expensive: How do we fill up all that space? While the installations above generally occupy the areas outside buildings, the below run LQC set ups straight down the street, creating narrower and more welcoming side sub-streets.
Italy really goes for these kinds of high-quality umbrellas – large thick canvas-like covering with solid wooden frame, prettier than the plastic and metal versions more common in other parts of the world. Here, the umbrellas are anchored to metal connections in the street surface. The food and drink vendors are located between the umbrellas and seating clusters for maximum convenience.
This is a similar arrangement to the previous one, except with more semi-permanent greenery, cheaper umbrellas, lamp posts, and businesses at the side of the street also extending out through tables, chairs, umbrellas, and awnings.
4. Longer term street activation
Once temporary installations have been successful, cities can upgrade them to more permanent varieties. Here are some visions of what that could look like.
San Francisco likes to boast that it created the parklet (parking spaces converted into public seating) but Europe has had them for years, albeit as private spaces usually for customers of the closest business. This more enclosed installation is a step up from the LQC installations above but is still removable if necessary.
These small one-story buildings look like later additions to the older taller buildings behind. They demonstrate how a wide street could be narrowed, making the street cozier, slowing down traffic, and potentially acting as a step toward pedestrianization. This could also make the building edge (where the building meets the street) more active by installing the businesses that most enliven streets: restaurants and cafes.
5. Seasonal street pedestrianization
For cities attempting to pedestrianize streets but struggling with resistance this type of installation could be a useful transitional step. The street is still used for traffic but can easily be pedestrianized when desired.
Unlike many European towns and cities, Reykjavik doesn’t have a permanently pedestrianized city center. But it does pedestrianize certain streets in the busier tourist season using these bright blue gates.
6. Novelty installations
Novelty approaches to activating poor public spaces often fail. But an entertaining installation, such as this oversized bench, in good public spaces where people actually do go can strengthen those spaces’ appeal.
So how do we bring these types of installation into modern cities, especially ones that lack the pedestrian-only spaces in which many of the above upgrades are located? There’s plenty of possibilities. Parking lanes can be repurposed as small seating areas combined with retail, restaurants, and cafes that face the curb, essentially turning sidewalks into mini pedestrian streets. Small parking lots on downtown commercial streets can be ringed with LQC commercial booths (food trucks are an easy solution for food) to create a lively square-like environment. Swing-down gates like in Reykjavik can allow temporary pedestrianization on an ongoing basis, enshrining pedestrianization as a norm by integrating it into the built landscape. And well-defined temporary seating areas can enliven the street during those pedestrianization periods.
It’s all about thinking differently about the existing built environment, seeing the opportunities for attracting people and keeping them around to lively up the public domain.