The Contradictions of Regulating “Pop-Up” Spaces
Photo by kmf164.

The H Street Pop-Up Lab was a hub for activities during last year's Digital Capital Week, a technology festival in Washington, D.C. Photo by kmf164.

Temporary urbanism—the trend of “pop-up places”—is growing in popularity, especially among retailers, politicians, planners, artists, landscape architects, entrepreneurs and activists. The concept of utilizing public or unused space for a short amount of time, in part, has become trendy because it creates a sense of urgency, encouraging consumption. Pop-up retail is particularly appealing to marketers: We found a high-end store called Vacant that shows exclusive designs in unoccupied spaces in select cities for only a few months. In a way, temporary retail spaces are not dissimilar to daily deal sites like Groupon and LivingSocial.

The High Line Park in Chelsea, New York has food vendors in temporary carts.

The High Line Park in Chelsea, New York has food vendors in temporary carts.

Yet this sort of activity has always existed. In much of the world, business opportunity occurs informally because it’s cheaper (and often more efficient.) There are many examples: streets hawkers in India, nighttime vending along a recently completed bus rapid transit line in Lagos, Nigeria, artists squatting in vacant spaces in New York City’s East Village in the early 1980s, and people picking apart trash heaps for computer parts or other recyclables. These activities can bring vibrancy to the cityscape. They fill in dead places. They can revitalize sections of a neighborhood. Another example: The High Line, New York’s famous elevated walkway, houses a food stand where restaurants in the city temporarily sell their goods.

Reshaping space for changing needs, encouraging the use of blighted locations in creative ways, and creating a vibrant street culture improves the economic competitiveness of a city. Commercial development can take many years to happen, leaving what could be useful spaces in a liminal status for months, if not years.

Recently, local governments in the U.S. have started to support policies that encourage the temporary usage of buildings and empty lots to prevent eyesores that lower property values. However, government involvement generally means laws, rules and paperwork that seem to contradict the sort of ground-up, collaborative potential of the community use of empty public spaces, whether it’s graffiti, an art opening, a garden or a fruit stand. At the same time, community-driven activities assume a lot, namely, that residents and entrepreneurs will take advantage of fluctuating, short-lived or risky business opportunities.

Nation’s Capital Turns to Art-Based Retail

Washington, D.C. has officially taken an interest in the concept of “temporary urbanism.” Recently, Director of the D.C. Office of Planning Harriet Tregoning asked Target Corp. to bring in temporary retail stands to the District, as it has done in New York City, before the company built its official store. The city sees that temporary sites can revitalize neighborhoods by bringing people to streets or to spaces that they might not have previously frequented.

The District’s focus within its Temporary Urbanism Initiative is retail. The Office of Planning says it wants to create opportunities for artists to sell their work by marketing neighborhoods as sites of unique services and activities. The effort is part of the city’s focus, at least nominally, on revitalizing under-served neighborhoods by leveraging the creative sector. A report called “Creative Capital,” commissioned by the District during former Mayor Adrian Fenty’s term, recommends furthering a “sense of place” in “distinctive D.C. communities” by enlivening streets and neighborhoods and creating more opportunities for impact at the planning level.

The District’s heavy hand in planning these temporary initiatives means more money for start-up projects and an opportunity to use city-owned land and buildings. Last summer, a vacant, single-room library became a temporary retail site for artists. The R.L Christian Library is located off H Street in Northeast D.C., a neighborhood decimated since the 1960s that is now seeing a mix of urban and residential renewal. The library was one of a handful set up in the 1970s in poor D.C. neighborhoods without access to full-service libraries. A few D.C. agencies collaborated with the arts organizations The Pink Line Project and Green Door Advisors to transform the space into a summer Wi-Fi lounge and design shop. Local companies like iStrategy Labs and Affinity Lab helped organize events to catalyze activities in the space.

Government Involvement Contradicts the Concept of Temporary Space

Graffiti in Bushwick, Brooklyn brings life to a street corner. Photo by Jonna McKone.

Graffiti in Bushwick, Brooklyn brings life to a street corner. Photo by Jonna McKone.

But is government involvement taking the place of what artists and residents might do on their own? Projects coined “temporary urbanism,” supported with grants from a government initiative, risk creating a formulaic model—in this case, venues for retail.

Philippa Hughes of the Pink Line Project, part-conceiver of last summer’s library space, supports the concept, but she worries the future spaces will fit into the same mold. “We don’t necessarily have to create venues for people to sell stuff,” she said, explaining that there are other non-retail ways of enlivening a place.

Art gatherings, squatters, street vendors and even urban gardeners often function outside formal systems. Sometimes such entrepreneurs lose out by doing so (no insurance, exclusion from earning credit, unfair costs) and gain more by achieving legality. Whatever the case, street businesses often bristle at the codification of how they should do things.

The front page of Street Vendor Project’s website, a project of the Urban Justice Center, is entitled, “What Justice?” The stories of New York City street vendors that follow are of excessive fines, or non-native English speakers facing difficulty navigating bureaucratic red tape and lack of government support for informal businesses. New York City has extensive regulations for street cart vendors, given the multiple uses of the streetscape and sheer number of food businesses. A previous post on TheCityFix explores similar challenges faced by food trucks across the country.

In D.C., it will be interesting to see how the city government expands the “temporary urbanism” program and whether communities take to it. Neighborhoods on the cusp of gentrification are likely to see government intervention that encourages art and business as top-down gentrification. Others might see these projects as interventions that take away ownership from something that should be fluid and community-driven. Yet, if D.C.’s temporary projects result in economic and social co-benefits for a community, perhaps residents will see such projects as a good thing.

Photo by Brian Tropiano.

The Mount Pleasant Temporium transforms a vacant space into an arts and crafts retail exhibit. Photo by Brian Tropiano.

Neighborhood “Temporium”

The Mount Pleasant Temporium is the District’s second “temporary urbanism initiative.”  It’s a retail space located in a residential neighborhood that, since the 1990s, when the neighborhood was predominantly Latino, has seen a tremendous rise in the cost of housing. Mount Pleasant has a small retail corridor peppered with mostly independently run food businesses.

The Temporium will be open for 25 days (it opened this past weekend) until it morphs into a new site for a vintage retail shop called Nana. The space houses handmade goods from artists and crafty retailers. According to the Temporium’s website: “Visitors are highly encouraged to explore the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood and its businesses. During the 24-day run of the project, several Mt. Pleasant businesses will feature their own stories in storefront displays and offer specials to Temporium customers.”

There are lessons to take from these sorts of temporary spaces and activities. Indoor and outdoor sites should fluctuate in their use. It is clear that people are demanding something more from their streets and public spaces, including empty storefronts or a sidewalks. At different times of day and throughout the year, these pop-up businesses take advantage of changing opportunities. Perhaps policies and more regulations can adjust to the temporary status of small businesses, such that legality can protect and encourage pop-up vendors, performers and artists. Just as cities grow, they hopefully meet the needs of residents while providing unique services.

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