design with the city

Design With the City, Not For It originally appeared on

Seasoned computer gamers know the power of “unlock codes”—secret keystrokes or controller movements that access hidden dimensions and increased capabilities. Well, cities have their own unlock codes, too, and resourceful planners and designers have begun discovering them.

Whether it’s repurposing a billboard to act as a humidity collection system for clean drinking water in Lima, Peru, or integrating Wi-Fi capabilities into Madrid’s paving stones with the iPavement initiative, cities are increasingly expanding the capabilities of their existing assets and reforming the urban terrain as a landscape of opportunity.

Many of the contradictions found in architect portfolios—buildings designed for use by people are often documented without evidence of use or people—also abound in urban design. Areas teaming with materials and assets are most often cleared away to make room for shiny new buildings and infrastructure. This is no longer a practical, nor sustainable, starting point. The new paradigm must be to design with the city, not for it.

The truth is that a city has all the resources it needs; the key to unlocking these resources is seeing the urban landscape not as the end result of a previous creative process, but as the beginning of a new one. Learning to design with the city is appreciating that there is a landscape full of resources to work with, not to remove and discard.

The first step is to consider the alternate capabilities of all urban materials. At the edge of almost every city is a warehouse containing a vast repository of overlooked resources—functional urban building blocks, from street poles to traffic lights, that represent tremendous potential as source material for new design.

When we design with the city, another underutilized resource is revealed: the skill sets of municipal employees who work with the materials, objects and systems of the city every day.

When the city of Jesolo, Italy, next to Venice, asked me to create opportunities for residents and tourists “beyond the beach, bars and shopping,” they were concerned they didn’t have the necessary resources to achieve this. I assured them they had all the resources they needed: just show me the municipal work crew’s supply warehouse.

Design with the city - Jesolo
Transforming disused spaces with existing materials in Jesolo, Italy

We assembled a design team from Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design in London, as well as designers and artists from Italy and abroad. Once the creatives selected an urban material or piece of infrastructure to design with, they partnered with the municipal workers and crews who work with that element of the city on a daily basis.

Using the city’s existing stock of street light poles and public fountain equipment, one team transformed a hot and barren public space next to the convention center into a misting design feature. “Pipe Nest” allows visitors to wander through a forest of repurposed poles releasing cool water into the air above.

Another team took the “design with the city” approach and transformed a unique asset of the city—its many discarded beach umbrellas—into Ombra Sompra, a vast expanse of cushioned public seating for an empty public square. A more literal reversal of function was displayed by Play.A Lights, a redesign of two large traffic light systems integrated with an Arduino controller, turning them into a public tic-tac-toe game.

Design with the city: transforming traffic lights into a game of tic-tac-toe

Reprogramming a city’s assets can bring rewards beyond just new uses for urban material as well. The most functional of urban structures can become platforms for more enjoyable public experience. When Hong Kong sought a new space for public rest and relaxation, for instance, it didn’t look for a barren patch of the city to design for, but saw the potential with an under-appreciated existing structure—a public stairway.

Design with the city - Creating a Micro Park on a Hong Kong Stairway

The Cascade is a miniature urban park designed by Edge Design Institute to attach onto an existing staircase near the Centrium in the central district. Containing trees, greenery, and single and facing seats, the Cascade creates a layer of personal space on top of a functional passageway between business and shopping areas.

While The Cascade is a new design for public use, its use of the existing stairway makes it an intrinsic part of the physicality of the city. Jesolo discovered new resources for public design by repurposing its material assets to design with the city and its existing resources. Hong Kong created a new layer of public leisure by designing new functionality on top of its existing structural assets.

Could similar reprogramming methods reap even more fundamental benefits for other cities? Reprogramming not only the aesthetic of existing urban assets, but using them to increase the social and mental health of a city? Residents of Umea, Sweden would say yes.

Sitting 300 miles north of Stockholm, Umea receives very little natural daylight during the winter months, which can take a severe toll on the mental and physical health of some people. The local energy company, Umea Energi, saw an opportunity to use two of the city’s assets in new ways to benefit the city’s residents.

Bus Stop in Umeå, Sweden, transformed into a “light therapy” booth to boost public mental health during dark winter months.
Bus Stop in Umeå, Sweden, transformed into a “light therapy” booth to boost public mental health during dark winter months.

Created as an initiative to “give the people of Umea a boost of energy when they need it the most,” Umea Emergi replaced the lamps in the advertising shells of 30 of the city’s bus stops with “light therapy” tubes. Now, as residents are waiting for the bus, they can face the lights for a few minutes to soak up the equivalent of natural sun light before continuing on their journey. After the lights were installed in the bus stops, ridership in the city increased by 50%.

Repurposing existing urban assets does more than introduce a resourceful spirit to the landscape; it also repurposes our relationship with the physicality of the city. When the physicality of the city is viewed not as a destination for design, but as the source material for it, a new relationship between design and the city is possible, creating connectivity and new functionality and purpose—as well as sustainability and happier residents.

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll LOVE the Reprogramming the City book and toolkit!