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Leaving room for creativity

Adam Scott
8:38:33 5 June 2024
51.0974° N, 0.0332° E


How plan-long term loose-fit big infrastructure might learn from start-now always-meanwhile small pilots.


When it comes to unlocking the often unknown potential in (sometimes stuck) big infrastructure projects, the challenge is to ensure that the solution has learnt and continues to learn from ongoing ‘always meanwhile’ interventions. Meanwhile initiatives – sometimes called tactical urbanism – tend to take one of three forms:


  • Project-disenchanted community stakeholders taking matters into their own hands. Clearly, communities fighting back – creating their own initiatives – in the name of controlling the narrative of a spatial move is a sign that that move has failed to learn from, engage with, or serve those communities.


  • Developers using ‘meanwhile state’ initiatives as the main tool for engaging the public. At its best, meanwhile-state initiatives are what they say on the tin: the temporary activation of land and assets scheduled for development. At its most cynical, it’s a pre-delivery piece of virtue signalling.


  • A state of being ‘always meanwhile’. The means of constantly informing and testing the design, activation as a prototype for what comes next, how to ‘keep’ as well as ‘make’, a process of continual improvement driven by local energy and knowhow. 


In so much as it anticipates the first, calls out the second, and suggests a way forward, it’s this third form – the always meanwhile – that is increasingly preoccupying the minds and energies of enlightened investors, developers, and landlords. With everyone looking for what it takes to create space in the planning and during the process of delivery for the unexpected, the non-linear, and changes in direction, it’s an approach that promises immediate, affordable, and creative results.   


In the long-term world of capital works programmes, ‘meanwhile-state’ planning sees key stakeholders – local community, tenant, landlord, developer – come together to prototype ideas that inform the spatial master plan and physically, socially, and culturally better land the planned development in the wider community and its environment. Land and buildings that would normally be left unoccupied are thus temporarily repurposed as markets, workspaces, food and beverage destinations, recreational space, galleries and even high streets. Often so successful, they’re eventual demise is mourned by their users, and whatever replaces them has none of their attractive and involving top-down bottom-up energy. 


An ‘always meanwhile’ approach simply appropriates this energy in the form of a succession of relatively small pilot-like interventions, each informing the next. A highly creative ‘start now, plan long term’ methodology that results in a much more dynamic ‘design-in-action’ approach to placemaking, it allows that rich cross-section of stakeholder input that marks – often through a change in policy and governance – the best of meanwhile state interventions to lead the planning, delivery, and management of a given development. It’s a design and (therefore, eventually) infrastructure that has, as Stewart Brand might say, the capacity to learn. All of which is easy to say, and admittedly super abstract, so some concrete examples, large and small:


  • Developer Argent’s approach to the development of Kings Cross didn’t stop at a human-centred design philosophy, an arts-and-culture approach to the temporary activation of multiple sites, or its insistence on repurposing dilapidated assets over landmark new builds. It left a staggering 20% of its spatial masterplan blank in anticipation of stumbling across the unexpected, a level of looseness that allowed it to swap workplace plans for an art and design university



  • Much can be learned from Munich Airport, which has been so successful in operating always meanwhile programmes around, through, and over its capital works interventions as to be go-to consultant for other airports, its expertise – in relocation, planning, and construction – learnt less at the side of the concrete pourer and much more in the business of operating an airport loved as much by employees as it is its customers, and which seeks to become through initiatives like its extraordinary events programme as much a destination in of itself as it is a transport node. 


  • In a recent and fascinating ‘always meanwhile in the business of property’ discussion with infrastructure investors, developers, planners, and designers held in Melbourne, everyone was taken with MVRDV Architects’s temporary Rotterdam Rooftop Walk (2022), a stunningly simple intervention exploring the potential of the urban rooftop in all sorts of areas, including energy transition, water retention, green roof technologies, and public spaces. It led to much discussion around the possibility of equally elegant schemes in the business of transport infrastructure.


featured image


  • When it comes to championing Curtin University’s activation of its campus, I know I’m something of a broken record. However, it remains a wonderful perfect example of how the success of creative and easily delivered community-led opex-size pilots leads to the successful implementation of capital works adapt, reuse, and repurpose schemes, which in turn lead on to large infrastructure moves, the original interventions continually informing the use and activation of new and old assets. At Curtin, it was the ‘always meanwhile’ campus activation plan that drove bigger spatial moves.  


  • Finally, there’s the ongoing work (with input from FreeState, I should say) at Leeds Station, which sees the potential of the station as a destination explored through its activation of a ‘campus’ made up five distinct though integrated zones, with dormant heritage assets activated by community-led projects, trade, and activities, the activation having the effect of making the station a conduit – as opposed to a barrier – between the regenerated south and the much more affluent north.                


I’m afraid I have, once again, as is my wont, battered you with my own obsessions. I’ll leave it for you to dig into all this for yourself. No doubt, you will have your own fine example(s) of the ‘always meanwhile’ pilot working in the interest of big infrastructure design and delivery – and if so, I’d love to hear about it. In the meantime, it’s my hope that the above sketch gives much food for placemaking thought, particularly in terms of how the approach has the potential to immediately and affordably and creatively bake in social and long term value. 


The genesis for this article comes from the aforementioned discussion in Melbourne earlier this year and shared here. Anything you’d like to discuss, do get in touch. 


Teaser image: © Ossip van Duivenbode© Pavlos Ventouris / MVRDV© Frank Hanswijk.  Hero image: Gentsch. Body images: Of Soil and Water: the King’s Cross Pond Club by Eva Pfannes & Sylvain Hartenberg of Ooze Architects and artist Marjetica Potr, courtesy B|D Landscape Architects and MVRDV



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