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Interview Architecture & Design

What do our future cities look like?


Words by Georgie Sinclair

This Sunday, our favourite online magazine will reach into its treasury of knowledge to curate a green-themed corner at the Greenhouse Festival. Founded in 2008, Pop-up City has steadily evolved from a modest blog run by two friends, into a major online knowledge platform and repository of ideas on urban themes. All of which have one thing in common: pop-up thinking. But what does this actually mean? Why have temporary and spontaneous initiatives become such a widespread phenomenon? Co-founder Jeroen Beekmans gives us some answers.  

What triggered your decision to start Pop-up City?

Joop and I started Pop-up City as a personal project back in 2008. Both fascinated by rapid change, we were noticing some interesting developments in society. Technological change was affecting social and cultural change. Architects were turning to materials like plastic, instead of steel, concrete or brick. And global brands like Puma were putting their flagship stores in shipping containers and travelling the world. To us, these different initiatives and flexible approaches to architecture, urban design, city planning and lifestyle were part of a larger trend and the emergence of a new social group: the Global Nomads. We wanted to communicate about that.

Might this ‘pop-up’ attitude have something to do with the financial crash of 2008?

People certainly think that we emerged as a result of the economic crisis. I am sure that many people found us during that time period as a new way of thinking and living was suddenly required. But for us, pop-up thinking is something that goes beyond financial and economic means. The crisis is almost over now but cities around the world have kept hold of this flexible attitude. Cities have managed to integrate flexible city making into a more structural urban policy.

Joop de Boer
Jeroen Beekmans

Many platforms that cover similar topics to Pop-up City have the tendency to speak in a very convoluted way. You have done a really good job at keeping your language accessible.

We try to describe things in a very concrete and practical way. If we are to make positive urban change we need to speak in a way that reaches everybody. I always try to imagine my mum as my main audience. As long as she can understand what we are writing, then I am happy. By using accessible language we hope to inspire a global movement of urban professionals and creatives. We want to bring city dwellers closer to the urban environment so they are able to add their own value to their surroundings.

“These flexible approaches to architecture, urban design, city planning and lifestyle were part of a larger trend and the emergence of a new social group: the Global Nomads”

What does this mean for the societal roles of citizens, for trained professionals and the government?

I believe that architects and urban designers need to redefine their role as mediators. Of course, they have the technical skills, but that does not mean a good idea cannot come from a cook, a gardener or a businessman. The same applies to the authorities. It is the government’s responsibility to facilitate the demands of the people and give them the tools to do what they want. In Amsterdam this is going very well. If someone wants to have a façade garden on the side of his or her house, the council will remove some tiles to make space. Regardless of what they do or what they’re interested in, city dwellers are the end users of urban space. They know how to use it best.

PARK(ing) day transforms small, metered parking spaces into public parks for a day.

Where is your favourite green space in the city?

For me, it is the Vliegenbos in Amsterdam-Noord. When I walk through the forest I just can’t imagine that I am only 2km away from Dam Square. The city of Amsterdam is doing a good job at keeping its ‘green lungs’ green. There are more trees per person which is rare for a city, and it is shaped like a hand: along every green finger you can easily access green space.

“Regardless of what they do or what they’re interested in, city dwellers are the end users of urban space. They know how to use it best”

What will cities look like in 10 years time?

I think there will be two very interesting things going on. The first is increased flexibility. There will be all kinds of new arrangements for people who are living a flexible, ‘subscription-based’ life. This will however, also be the cause of an emerging group of people who long for a greater sense of belonging. People will be searching for a place they can call home. Somehow we will need to find a balance between the two. Governments and urban designers will have begun making greater use of green space in cities, and high-speed technologies such as automated vehicles will be much more integrated into the urban fabric. I think all these different ways of thinking will have come together in 10 years time. It will be green, it will be high-tech, it will be very flexible, but we will also have mastered a way to make our cities feel like home.

What can we expect from the Pop-up City corner at the Greenhouse Festival?

We have six screens on which we will display a very diverse selection of green projects from around the world. In some ways, each example will be representative of how I imagine our cities will look in 10 years. The projects are very human-centered on one hand, and very technological on the other. We’ll also be doing some storytelling using text, image and video. We hope to inspire people to look a little differently at their green space.