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Editorial> Architecture in the Streets
It's time to get to work transforming our cities' public spaces.
San Francisco's Divisadero Street Parklet opened in March 2010.
Jeremy A. Shaw

All across the United States, architects and designers are badly frustrated by a sad economy, timid clients, dwindling public funds, and bureaucratic systems that make any project into a multi-year affair. My suggestion: Stop waiting. Just do something, anything—temporary installations, neighborhood improvements, pocket parks, street furniture.

If you look around some big cities, it’s already happening. My favorite example is the “parklets” program in San Francisco, which consists of 15 mini-parks on tiny pieces of city-owned land. The parklets are part of the City Planning Department’s “Pavement to Parks” program, which looks to build parks on “wasted” parcels like rights of way and extra-wide streets. Another SF program, “parkmobiles,” consists of portable landscapes of trees, ferns, and shrubs in red steel bins with adjacent street furniture that will be rolled out in the Yerba Buena Gardens. The city also hosts the “Proxy” project in Hayes Valley, a temporary retail village made of shipping containers until the real buildings get finished.

This DIY architecture and landscape movement is also unfolding elsewhere. Houston, New York, Chicago, Dallas, Portland, Memphis and other cities have experimented with “Better Block” programs, a grassroots effort of nonprofits, business owners, and neighbors to create temporary projects to encourage people to get out of their cars and enjoy their neighborhoods. Park(ing) Day now takes place in most of the major cities across the country, where parking lots are converted into parks for a one day a year. And Philly has gotten in the game too, creating mini-parks and art installations in its University City area.

Local governments should be encouraging such behavior with more gusto. Why not take advantage of a hungry set of designers who can make their cities more livable? In California, while SF’s planning department has made a great start, its downstate sister LA is lagging. Granted, the city has helped create some great new parks, including the Cornfields and the Vista Hermosa Park, both near downtown; non-profits and schools like Materials and Applications and SCI-Arc provide a home for installations; and some advocates are trying to install pocket parks throughout the area. But the city doesn’t have any regular program to spur inventive urban transformations.

Until this happens, I propose a new, possibly unorthodox, approach: guerilla architecture. Just as street artists have managed to legitimize their work and have changed much of the landscape of LA and other cities, architects can do the same creating what we can call “street architecture.”

The work can provide a showcase for new talent while making our cities more dynamic and approachable. There's so much wasted space that could use an intervention to make people see it differently—not only rights of way and wide streets, but also surface parking lots, which take up more space in our cities than they ever should. Imagine these becoming usable spaces in the urban environment.

In the current climate, how much more satisfying is it for architects and designers to create something immediate and tangible instead of continuing to work on virtual concepts for competition entries and other projects that may never see the light of day?

How can architects be proactive in transforming LA and other cities? Ask a neighborhood non-profit or museum what it needs and start a Kickstarter fund online. Find a way to creatively use scraps from old projects to create an installation in a public space. Ask a client if you can use an empty storefront or lot for your project. Of course, be sensible and don’t do anything that will be dangerous or harm public or private property. There’s a good chance that your city may take what you’ve built down. But just maybe they won’t. So let’s get to work.

Sam Lubell