The temptation to reinvent urban life is a 150-year inclination. Efforts to re-make and modernize weakened cities have peacocked roots in the City Beautiful movement, an unfortunate maturation in Urban Renewal and today’s comeback in the Live/Work/Play mantras of downtown redevelopment. In many cases, public and private actors prioritize bricks and mortar projects in areas ripe for revitalization. However, a new trend of temporary revitalization, inspired by international counterparts, is gaining momentum. These pop-up projects illuminate elements of city life that are ignored, overlooked and disinvested.

The pop-up, with ties to  guerrilla urbanism and the open streets movement, is usually a grassroots strategy to cast a new vision for places and for people who normally do not have a prominent voice in planning decisions or in urban investment. This imagined reinvention takes on many forms where advocates transform dumpsters, buses, cargo containers, vacant lots and auto-crazed roads into vibrant places. While motivations, mobilization strategies and hoped-for results vary, the one commonality is that they all go beyond aesthetic enhancement and social capital building to suggest alternative futures and raise provocative questions about public, private and citizen ownership and control. This is especially true in the gray areas between illegal and sanctioned pop-up events.

A colorful and diverse cluster of civic champions and guerrilla advocates push these efforts from the top-down, bottom-up and the underground. Some of the more common actors include planning departments, community development corporations, universities, artists, urban activists, designers and advocacy groups. Their diverse interests, in such areas as public health, social justice, equitable development, multi modal environments and community economic development, suggest that pop-ups are a transferable form of public or citizen communication. These groups, whether working within-or-outside legal and regulatory structures, are simultaneously comprised of utopian visionaries and strategic incrementalists trying to affect policy changes. They subtly and not-so-subtly demand attention and resources to have a better shot at community stabilization and resiliency – not just in areas primed for investment but for those places or people who are forgotten.

Despite, or because of, their popularity, critics increasingly question different aspects of temporary revitalization. Early adopters, who favored the tool for the Have-Nots, are concerned that the private sector is co-opting interventions for economic growth over economic development. Policy advocates question the inability to turn these one-off projects into real change. Critics suggest that some pop-up events resemble fads, with no evaluation to back up their initial proposition. Others suggest that the pop-up umbrella is too wide to make any distinctions about applicability. These revitalization concerns are typical for untested interventions and early experiments.

Currently, my research with graduate research assistant, Aaron Mondada, is beginning to address these questions. We recently developed a national database of pop-up projects and are in the midst of framing and exploring different aspects of temporary revitalization in the United States.

The slideshow below offers some examples of pop-up projects. To learn more, come to the Fettuccine Forum Thursday, March 6 at the Rose Room, 718 W. Idaho Street, in downtown Boise. For more information, see boiseartsandhistory.org.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.