Pop-up social infrastructure

Pop-up spaces are not a new thing (even the article we’re linking to is two+ years old), but few are well done, fewer still are not incubating retail spaces, but it’s even more unique to find a group that does multiple projects over a few years. That’s what the CultureHouse have been doing, turning pop-up spaces into social infrastructure.

They started in Boston’s Kendall Square, an area booming with a growing tech-entrepreneurial base during the day, but slow commercial activity on nights and weekends.

[CultureHouse took] a tactical urbanist approach: physically occupying vacant storefronts and turning them into pop-up public places. In a long-vacant former coffee shop on Kendall Street, for example, people can sit and talk, read, eat, see a show, or attend an ever-changing rotation of events. This last week, the space hosted a “Game Night,” a ping-pong tournament, Dog Trivia, and a screening of a documentary on Jane Jacobs.

The idea is to create a shortcut to social infrastructure in communities that need it. Some examples of social infrastructure are welcoming public spaces like parks and libraries, where neighbours can interact with one another. Some private spaces like cafes provide some of that, but are not as equally accessible, since they have an “entrance fee” of making a purchase.

As in many pop-up models, CultureHouse collaborates with property owners who see the benefit of foot traffic in neighbourhoods and of having spaces that draw attention and provide passersby with an opportunity to stop and spend some time in the area.

Just activating storefronts helps to increase foot traffic, encourages people to come to the area, and simply makes it more alive. Creating a public space there then creates what I call an “element of stickiness.” It gives people a reason to to stay, and that, in turn, supports the businesses that are still open. […]

Simply putting something in those windows changes the way people interact with the street. They’re much more likely to choose walking, or some more active transportation mode; they’re much more likely to feel happier. Just activating the windows of the storefront already has an effect. The icing on the cake is then getting people to actually walk in and spend meaningful time there.

Since the article, the group has run quite a few projects but seems to have grown slowly, quite in line with the interview linked above, where they were considering the balance between a common need in many cities, and the idea of developing a solid practice for their interventions.

We’ve gone back and forth internally about where we focus our efforts—there’s something to be said about expanding, but there’s also a lot to be said about really honing in and focusing, because these spaces are tailor-made to the communities they serve.

As with many groups we feature here on the blog, it’s always a very valuable and appreciated gesture when they share their learnings, and in this case, CultureHouse has produced a constantly updated manual on how they work.

To make their spaces livelier, they also hold multiple events, aligning with the local community and collaborating with other organizations looking for an audience and who have some public good to offer. “It’s really about partnering with local resources and offering CultureHouse as a platform and a stage to enhance what’s already there.”

Photo: With free WiFi and free coffee, Cambridge’s CultureHouse provides a kind of instant public space. Courtesy CultureHouse.