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What next for Adelaide’s pop-ups?

Opinion

Designers and entrepreneurs need to push the boundaries of Adelaide’s pop-ups in innovative new directions to achieve long-term urban renewal and avoid them becoming a stagnating fad, writes Matthew Alfred.

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There is little question that Adelaide has fully embraced the pop-up culture, as it edges closer and closer to becoming a ubiquitous urban element.

Granted, the “hipster chic” of many of this city’s pop-ups drives an urban aesthetic that happily aligns with Adelaide’s current marketed identity.

From an urban standpoint, however, the substance behind the movement quickly stagnates, and its long-term effects on the city feel like a missed opportunity. For the designer, activist or entrepreneur among us, there is the potential to push Adelaide’s pop-ups in exciting and innovative new directions.

Currently, the pop-up gives the illusion of progress without any real established urban projects. Its ties to a liberal counterculture certainly make for good PR and indicate a “progressive” urban policy, although its cheap and temporary nature ultimately suggest a lean closer to urban conservatism.

For these reasons, the pop-up has developed from a form of guerrilla urbanism into a matter of public policy.

This important (if sometimes frustrating) step in the evolution of the movement has seen the advent of a number of Adelaide City Council-sponsored events, a prime example of which is the annual Park(ing) Day, which involves the transformation of car spaces into “people places”.

Promotional material surrounding these events is littered with phrases such as “vibrancy” and “urban regeneration”. While these buzzwords have attracted a less-than-optimistic response from many in the design and planning world, they do begin to tug at the thread of possibility available to the pop-up.

Designers from Hassell took their offices outdoors at the city's first Park(ing) Day. Photo: Facebook

Designers from Hassell took their offices outdoors at the city’s first Park(ing) Day. Photo: Facebook

Generally the pop-up has been deployed in the pursuit of the elusive urban “vibrancy” and, to a lesser extent, as a testing ground for urban ideas. While the latter is perhaps an optimistic evaluation of the state of pop-ups, it is nevertheless a motivator that could breathe life and a sense of urban progress into what is fast becoming a stagnating fad.

By its very definition, the pop-up is short-lived. It appears, swiftly constructed, fulfils its objectives, and disappears with the haste with which it materialised. This system is not one that easily lends itself to any lasting effect, except perhaps for the perpetuation of more pop-ups in its place.

There are, however, some examples of pop-ups playing the long game. While organisations such as Splash Adelaide spring to mind, it is Renew Adelaide that has achieved the most promising level of success in SA. It has successfully harnessed the advantages of the pop-up’s transient structure to achieve a long-term goal.

The Renew movement came into being after founder Marcus Westbury noticed a disconnect between the owners of commercial spaces in the NSW city of Newcastle and the people who wanted to inhabit them. In declined areas, owners wouldn’t allow their vacant spaces to be used at a reduced rate, because they were afraid of losing potential full-paying tenants later. On the other hand, tenants with capital were unwilling to take up residency in areas of such high risk.

The net result was continuing vacancy and urban decay, despite repeated attempts at infrastructure improvements. Picking up on this, Westbury and his team began negotiating temporary leasing of spaces in which operators with little to no capital were able to set up shop. Here, Renew has recognised the potential of the pop-up’s short-term nature and has taken advantage of the system in high concentration.

This incarnation of the pop-up has fulfilled two potential roles.

First, it is a generator of urban activity. Where previously there was a high level of commercial vacancy, pop-ups have been deployed, birthing new shops, bars, offices and art studios. This creates a surprisingly heterogeneous array of urban activity, which is crucial in activating a city at vital times of the day.

Second, it succeeds as an ongoing urban experiment. The high turnover of tenants works to test new projects in an intense and accelerated process of urban natural selection. As more experiments run, it quickly becomes evident which are more suited to a particular area and which are not.

This is an incredibly powerful tool that can only be widely cultivated through a system as low-risk as the pop-up. These two elements work toward realising two of the ideas mentioned earlier that continuously appear in urban policy documents: “vibrancy” (if this is to be translated as simple urban activity) and “urban regeneration”, as the high concentration of activities begins to provide an uplifting effect on the areas of focus in the long-term.

These tactics still hold a wealth of potential.

Jock Zonfrillo’s Nonna Mallozzi in Peel Street. Photo: CityMag

Jock Zonfrillo’s Nonna Mallozzi in Peel Street. Photo: CityMag

Pop-ups like temporary restaurant Nonna Mallozzi (among others) continue the battle, temporarily inhabiting what would otherwise be vacant blocks and injecting much-needed life into the surrounding area.

Tampering with the framework of a form such as pop-ups, much in the way that Renew has, offers the possibility of extending the experiment into larger and different areas and sets the tone for future experiments.

These may be installations capable of tapping into key areas of the city (or beyond), establishing a cellar door of sorts for otherwise hidden sub-cultures. A return to the pop-up’s guerrilla roots, for example, could emphasise the artistic core of the West End; its high visibility could be used to bring people to the area who would not ordinarily be exposed to such culture.

As long as pop-ups are, ironically enough, here to stay, perhaps it is time for more urban radicals to push their boundaries.

Matthew Alfred is an Adelaide architecture graduate and freelance writer.

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