‘In Transit’ – the importance of transitional use.

Temporary use, ‘pop-ups’, test sites and a vast number of other terms have been given to projects that appear in the in-between period, from land use to land use.  While perhaps famed in the 60’s and 70’s with the rise of squats, temporary vacancies are now seen as a great opportunity for anything from housing, to seasonal events (such as a summer bar) to test sites for high risk-taking businesses.  However temporary use often has no great added benefit to the site or the context, something we feel is a real missed opportunity. 

As OSMOS is often involved in questions of designing transitions, this text is directed at both public authorities and building owners, where we pose a few questions we feel are critical to consider before embarking on the process of transitional use.  We’re looking at this in terms of practical examples in Brussels, however we could apply the same rational to any urban context.

  1. Why use transitions?
  2. When transitions should be considered,
  3. How to deal with governance of organisations forming temporarily (both public and private),
  4. How to deal with legal constraints and
  5. How are such transitions could be funded?  

Why transition

The transition between design and development of urban areas, public spaces and buildings has traditionally been treated as a void during a linear process.  However not thinking about the transition process can result in many serious problems. Neighbourhoods are built and remain lifeless for years, new parks are underused and eventually vandalised, commercial space remains empty or early speculations turn out to be erroneous.  

Increasingly we’re seeing complex projects or sites that explore this ‘in-between period’ can generate as much value as delivering a new park, building or renovated neighbourhood. It is in this transition moment where new ideas can be tested, communities can be given a chance to get involved and the impact of change can be softened.  Transitional use is also very different from ‘temporary use’, where the transitional approach looks at ways to bridge between the current state of a place and a future outcome.  Transitions could occur at the scale of a neighbourhood (particularly those undergoing great change such as Josaphat* or Biestebroek*), a block (where a street may be changing) or at the scale of a building (where new business or functions are available).

There are a vast number of projects that have explored this transition phase and generated significant community value – for example: temporary use of commercial space (Renew Newcastle* / AU), creating temporary gardens (The Curve Garden* – UK), new forms of business ecosystems (Microlab* – NL), testing alternative ways of using a site undergoing natural decontamination (De Ceuvel* – NL)…

Recently in Brussels, a number of initiatives have occurred with various levels of success, such as the activation of the Congres train station, Parckfarm* , Allee du Kaai*, the Pietonnier*, La Serre* and more recently Studio Citygate*. It is clear that there is a lot of value to be gained for Brussels however there are very few standards to approach transitional use or which public organisations have authority to drive it.

When

Transitional uses should occur strategically rather than imposed on every project / development site.  Likewise some projects, such as the Pietonnier*, are perfect opportunities for testing ideas and finding ways to engage with an audience that will be heavily impacted by changed urban areas.

  • When should transitional uses occur?
  • Who should be demanding it?
  • At what part of the process should it occur?

Governance

Governance can have a huge impact on the outcome and value of a project in terms of how inclusive a project is and how decisions are made.  Poor governance and a dominance of power by one actor can result in poor project management or push actors out of a project.  Likewise, projects that are being driven by one actor can result in little engagement or friction with interest groups.  Finally, projects that have no clear timeline can suffer from anxiety of not knowing when the project will end and not allowing partners to invest.

  • Are there certain governance models that should be set in place? This could include Community Interest Companies, PPPs or community organisations…
  • Who ultimately should take responsibility?  Is it the owner of the site or the transitional project?
  • What public-private structures can be setup to ensure both effective management but also long-term public value?
  • How can projects be given some certainty of the minimum period of time in which it will operate.
Discussions at Studio C, Brussels (BE)

Transitions and the law

In many cases, temporary use of space requires new permits (urbanism / environmental) or adapting to very rigid legislation makes it impossible to comply. There are some ‘interpretations’ of laws that can make temporary use possible, however it also requires legal knowledge which most organisations do not have.  Likewise, the police and fire brigade can use their power to interpret regulation which may ultimately impact whether temporary functions are possible.

  • What is the state of existing legislation in terms of temporary functions?
  • How flexible are existing laws?
  • What rules/regulations need to change?
  • Should there be an organisation responsible for supporting temporary functions?

Funding transitions

Temporary projects are very difficult to fund because there is a vast amount of risk and uncertainty.  For projects that involve a public good (IE social value and not simply a business), there should also be some kind of public support.  However the funding process itself can also be an important aspect of generating value and support – crowd-funding events for example can create ownership and commitment that may never be possible from public grants.   While funding from public sources or foundations is always an option, it can take months (if not years) to secure the funds, by which time the project may no longer be relevant.

  • What public funding is available? 
  • How can private funding be activated?
  • What temporary organisations can be created to handle funds yet also are seen as responsible administrators of finance?  

OSMOS most recently has been involved with the Studio C project, a 22,000sqm site  within Brussels.