Pop-Up Urbanism, a Future for Southeast Asia

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One of many Eric Zacharevic murals in Penang. Photo Source: Arrestedmotion.com

The urbanisation of metropolitan areas and the character of cities have taken a new dimension in recent years. There is an increasing focus for local residents to have an active role in developing the cities of the world. Such trend is seen as an important step in promoting sustainable practices and improving planning policies in urban areas (Yuen, 2009).  With the emergence of the “Maker Movement” from DIY (Do-It-Yourself) communities around the world, urban designers, planners, and community members have taken it unto themselves to test improvements that can be done in the public realm. In an era of corporate-led urban development and profit-driven common spaces, innovative thinkers are exploring methods to democratise the psychological ownership of the city.

There is a notable interest in creating and preserving shared public spaces/ commons, which are not solely defined by their conventional ownership but by how citizens make use of them (Lydon et al, 2011). This is apparent in the customary use of open arenas as commons, despite being formally owned by private establishments, royal families, defence forces or managed by the state. This is also observed in the appropriation of privately owned or abandoned spaces as common spaces and utilising them as urban gardens, venues for play and community gatherings. Local residents, indigenous groups, activists, artists, and urban design professionals often initiate these interventions. Within this “DIY urbanism,” the creation of open spaces becomes a task not only for qualified architects or urban planners but also for individuals and larger collectives. This spread of DIY urbanism was observed to have started in tandem with the contemporary financial meltdown and the rollback of public responsibility for financing and managing infrastructure, recreational areas and public spaces in many industrialised countries (Bradley, 2015). Such interventions have been observed to provide positive benefits to the city.

Pop-Up Urbanism

Pop-up urbanism is a movement that involves all sorts of innovative practices, which examine potential urban design strategies using temporary installations (Pfeifer, 2013). Some of them last for a couple of hours, while others can be used for longer intensive studies that  can last up to a year. These installations are done to acquire feedback and examine possible improvements in specific areas (ibid). There are also some types of events wherein businesses or interest groups have special days that are dedicated to the pop-up culture, providing attractive temporary spaces, community-led beautification projects, and informal sitting areas that are installed without official city-approval. All these add interest and provide small and surprising pockets of delight in the city. Pop-up urbanism also includes temporary plazas, temporary green spaces, and flash mobs where people take over a public pace for a seemingly impromptu activity.

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Images showing the varied interaction of people to the artwork of street artist Ernest Zacharevic in Penang. Photo souce: Demilked.com

Pop-up urbanism is also related to the other kinds of urbanism like “guerilla urbanism”, “tactical urbanism” and “DIY urbanism”.  Guerrilla urbanism occurs when an individual or group takes it upon themselves to fix an urban problem or make an urban statement without any authorization from the city or country in which they live in (Simpson, 2015). These projects sometimes “Pop-up” overnight and oftentimes, no one takes responsibility for them. According to Lydon et al (2011), tactical urbanism is a type of urban transformation which can be identified through the following characteristics:

  • It has a deliberate phased strategy to initiating change;
  • It provides local solution for local planning challenges;
  • It has limited commitment and realistic expectations;
  • It contains low risk with a likely high reward;
  • It develops social capital between citizens as well as building of organisational capacity between public-private institution, non-profit and their constituents.

 Southeast Asian Pop-Ups

The region of Southeast Asia is among the most densely populated regions in the world and is home to the megacities of Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila (UN-DESA, 2012). It also has a highly diverse history, culture, geography and natural resources. The ten countries in the region are at various levels of economic and urban development, which includes the industrialised countries of Singapore and Brunei, newly industrialising economies of Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines, and the developing countries of Vietnam and Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Timor-Leste. This study will limit its scope in Pop-up urbanism that is happening in Singapore and Malaysia.

Singaporean and Malaysian government agencies, who are responsible for urban planning, policies partner with individuals, communities and organised groups to accomplish this aim (URA, 2013; Yuen, 2009). This collective effort towards development of the state has successfully reconfigured the urbanisation pattern of metropolitan areas such that streets are beautified temporarily, plazas are erected at strategic locations, crosswalks or bike lanes are painted with permanent markings and public spaces are temporarily altered so that stakeholders can see the potential for improvement.

In Malaysia, there are several pop-up events, which have been initiated by individuals and business establishments alike. For instance, as part of the George Town festival, during the month-long celebration of art activities in Penang, Malaysia, Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic beautified the city streets with his imaginative street art. Dubbed as the “new Banksy” by The Wall Street Journal, 25-year-old Zacharevic is making a name for himself with these engaging works. One of his pieces is of two life-size siblings taking a ride on the back of a mountain bike painted at Armenian Street. Interestingly, the bike is actually real and is propped up against the wall. The Armenian Street mural has provoked a fascinating and creative response from its visitors. People are taking pictures of themselves in different poses, from chasing the children down the street to levitating next to it.  “This is street art at its best, when it stops being an individual painting and becomes part of the public imagination,” says Zacharevic (Yoo, 2012). Such type of art engages people and makes them express their own creativity in the public realm. As another example, there was character design project for an Urbanscape Festival in Malaysia entitled, “Mhee Mha”. The design brief for the project was to create pop-up monsters that would be shown in different festival locations. Characters from “B-Type” movies inspired the theme of the pop-up monsters, which provided higher entertainment value to those who saw it. Pop-up restaurants at Malaysian food markets have also been observed to be opening in different locations on several less busy market roads (Lanegran, 2002).  These pop-up urbanism initiatives emanate from the people’s desire to provide creative solutions for urban problems in the country.

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Image of the PubliCity project “Play Space” at the Tiong Bahru Estate. Photo souce: Seng Poh RC.

In Singapore, the national planning agency, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), has recognised that public spaces are important components of the living environment. They believe that the creation and development of well-designed public spaces are needed for people to gather for social activities and serve as leisure and recreational spaces.  In 2013, the URA created the initiative called “PubliCity”, which was focused on involving the community to celebrate good public spaces and to enliven them through design programmes (URA, 2013). Since 2013, the PubliCity has created several Pop-Up initiatives (URA, 2015) such as:

  1. “Streets for People” - a programme that supports community-initiated projects which temporarily transforms busy streets into meaningful pedestrianised public spaces. This initiative has garnered a lot of support from business owners and residents for areas like Everton Park, Kampong Glam, Ann Siang Hill and the shopping district of Orchard Road.
  2. “Play Space” - a pop-up play area, which recreated memorable playgrounds using three sets of 3D jigsaw puzzles. These puzzles replicated the old dragon playground at Toa Payoh, the watermelon playground at Tampines and the elephant playground at Pasir Ris;
  3. “Play it Forward” – a creative project initiated by a group of local artists and designers to transform old, unwanted pianos into art pieces and placed in public spaces for everyone to enjoy.
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People playing the piano for the PubliCity project, “Play it Forward”.
Photo souce: PubliCity, URA

There are other instances in Singapore wherein citizens have led urbanism projects, which are not part of the initiative by URA.  The Tiong Bahru Flee Market was a personal project of Eileen Nai who is a resident of the historic and hip estate of Tiong Bahru. Nai wanted to bring residents together to capture “the Kampong Spirit” (community spirit) which she wanted to share with visitors too (Seng Poh RC, 2015) From a set of 10 stalls selling second hand clothing in 2012, the event has increased in size to 60 stalls and activities like free caricatures for visitors and bicycle protection campaign for the neighbourhood have also been integrated by the residents’ community centre (ibid). An example of a massive campaign to take ownership of green spaces in Singapore is the Green Corridor Run. The pop-up sporting event is part of a bigger initiative of raising awareness and appreciation of the Green Corridor (also known as the Rail Corridor), which is an important cultural and biological artery in city-state (Caballero, 2015). The railway land connects many green spaces from North to South of the country and is already like a nature park with a mix of secondary forest growth, grasslands, and small-scale fruit and vegetable farms (Green Corridor Org, 2013). The Green Corridor Run will have its final event in 2016 after the URA has concluded the design competition for its redevelopment.

All the above examples are temporal interventions that have emerged as a way to provide awareness and improve local neighbourhoods, making it friendlier to citizens and municipal administrations.  Such efforts are slowly being embraced by the state as part of its formal strategies to engage its citizens. As Ng Lang, Chief Executive Officer of URA believes when discussing PubliCity, “Public spaces play a critical role in our plans to create a good quality living environment. They serve as venues for communities to gather and interact, and help to strengthen social identity and foster community bonding. Through these projects, we hope to invite the community to celebrate public spaces, and at the same time participate in giving ideas on how to make them better” (URA, 2013).

Green corridor run

The green corridor run, which started in 2013, is an annual event that celebrates the natural-like green artery of the previous railway line. The corridor will now be up for urban development by 2016. Photo Source: Green Corridor Run

Possible Future

Similar to what Singapore does with the PubliCity, wherein community projects are supported and valorised by the state, other Southeast Asian cities can encourage individuals, local organisations and communities to stimulate meaningful urban design improvements. It fosters the spirit of a bottom-up planning approach that enhances citizens’ awareness, mobilises people participation and considers local needs, which people try to tackle through pop-up innovations.  Partnering with development oriented and green businesses and individuals and providing financial support for such projects can create temporary yet meaningful changes in the public realm. Pop-up projects can be a starting point for longer-term innovations that can be done for Southeast Asian cities.

Understanding the benefit of pop-up urbanism has helped relevant agencies of Malaysia and Singapore to appreciate the essence of bottom up town planning. Such initiatives do not necessary lead to anti-statism, because individuals and organisations can work in collaboration with the relevant government agencies to create better planning strategies to improve pockets of common spaces in the city.  However, organisers should understand government policies, financial capacities of different stakeholders, possible legal restrictions, and cultural differences in the public realm in order to gauge the possible outcomes of these activities.

In conclusion, innovations from Pop-Up Urbanism are starting to be felt in Southeast Asia, with particular examples in Malaysia and Singapore. Collaborators from the business sector, individual innovators and diverse organisations have contributed to the imaginative temporary improvements of the public realm. Government agencies through new policies have started to welcome individuals, groups and organisations to contribute in building a better community. Different actors such as design professionals, community leaders and passionate individuals are needed for the sustainable urbanisation of Southeast Asia. Innovations through fun, interactive public spaces can help us create healthy, delightful spaces through pop-up urbanism.



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About the Authors

Gabriel CaballeroGabriel Caballero is a landscape architect from the Philippines, who has worked for leading landscape design practices in Asia for the last decade. Gabriel came back to Asia in 2015, following two years of graduate studies in Germany focused on providing strategies for diverse issues of World Heritage Sites. He has worked on a variety of projects, including a design competition for the revitalisation of the National Orchid Garden at the Singapore Botanic Gardens; an architectural and landscape conservation strategy of the historic settlement of Hellerau in Germany and a masterplanning for a sustainable leisure destination in Hamilo Coast in the Philippines.

Kenneth Wong See Huat is a sustainability consultant for Kuala Lumpur Centre for Sustainable Innovation. He has multi-faceted experience in public policy, town planning and heritage conservation. He was selected by Australian High Commission as a delegate for 2nd ASEAN Emerging Leaders Program organized by the Asia Foundation. He was both a recipient of the Asian Development Bank Japan Scholarship (MSc Urban Planning) and the Erasmus Mundus Scholarship (MA Cultural Landscape). He is reachable for consultation work on heritage conservation, green growth and climate change at wshkenneth@yahoo.com