Don’t Repair Urban Infrastructure –  Reprogram it for New Use

Researchers from the Urban Mining project in Norrköping, Sweden, estimate that when all the disconnected and obsolete pieces of the city’s below-ground infrastructure are accounted for, 560 tons of copper are “paralyzed under the streets of the city” and could be mined for additional use.

560 Tons of Dormant Copper Infrastructure Below Norrköping, Sweden, available for new use.

There is an even greater paralysis of potential above urban ground. Objects, structures, surfaces, and systems that have the potential to do more sit in place performing only one function when they have the capacity to do so much more to improve life in cities.

For almost a decade, Reprogramming the City has worked to show how a new spirit of resourcefulness can transform the functionality of cities by maximizing the use of assets already in place. The entire range of human needs can be met by reimagining the use of existing urban assets. All that is required is an imaginative questioning of what more could be done with physical elements in the urban landscape.

Billboards can be repurposed to generate clean drinking water. Bus stops can serve as mood-boosting shelters. Stairways can become mini urban parks to add a space for rest and relaxation. Too many urban elements serve only one purpose when they are capable of doing so much more. Even worse, many fade into obsolescence and are removed and replaced without consideration of the additional functionalities they could perform.

The Cascade, Hong Kong: A Central Business District Stairway that now doubles as a mini urban park.
The Cascade, Hong Kong: A Central Business District Stairway that now doubles as a mini urban park.

A sustainable urban future requires designing with the city, not for it. It is an important distinction that moves the equation from using more to doing more with what we have. The new urban reality is one of finite resources — spatial, financial, and material. Meeting the future needs of the city requires exchanging the mindset of removing and replacing assets with one of renewing and reprogramming them for new use.

The municipal water supply doesn’t reach many outlying areas of Lima, Peru. Residents in these areas rely on shallow wells that are often polluted for their drinking water. The struggle for water in one of the world’s driest cities is cruelly ironic, as the air above the city has a 95% humidity.

UTEC Water Billboard Scott Burnham Reprogramming the City Repurposed Billboard Urban Infrastructure
The UTEC Water Billboard, a repurposed billboard that produced an average of 96 liters (25 gallons) of fresh water a day for local communities.

A local engineering college, UTEC, realized a solution could be possible by reimagining the use for a structure that literally connects the earth and sky. They repurposed an existing billboard into essentially a giant de-humidifier that draws water from the air, purifies it, and channels it into a storage tank contained in the base of the billboard. After the modification, the Water Billboard produced an average of 96 liters (25 gallons) of fresh water a day for local communities. A year later, the Water Billboard was modified further to irrigate a hydroponic system, allowing fresh vegetables to be grown at its base.

The result was Air Orchard, a hydroponic irrigation system that grows thousands of heads of lettuce. The new model draws water from the Water Billboard through a series of nutrient-coated tubes to irrigate dozens of growing units at ground level.

The Water Billboard provides a clean irrigation source, while the Air Orchard system increases the crop’s nutritional value and provides a model for environmentally sensitive food production. Hydroponically grown vegetables are five times more nutritional than those grown in soil and consume considerably less water than traditional farming methods.

“We improved on the Water Billboard,” said Ignacio Montero, director of business innovation at UTEC, “and increased the production of water to grow healthy food. We have found a practical solution to a real problem, and through creativity and innovation we developed solutions to the challenges of our country and the world.”

On the other side of the planet, residents in northern Sweden faced their own shortage — daylight in the winter months.

The city of Umeå gets less than 60 minutes of sunlight each day during winter. This can have a devastating impact on the individual and collective mental health of the city’s residents. To counter this, the city’s energy company replaced the advertising lights with anti-SADD “light therapy” bulbs in 30 of the city’s bus stops. Now, as commuters wait for the bus, they can spend a few minutes getting a mental health boost from the natural light wavelengths emitted by the bulbs.

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.

“We wanted to show we care about the people living here in Umeå at this dark time of the year,” said Umeå Energi CEO Göran Ernstson. “People get depressed if they don’t see light.”

After the light therapy bus stops were installed, bus ridership in the city increased by 50 percent.

Decommissioned city busses fall off the radar in most cities after their original use has ended, but in San Francisco their second life transformed more than just the busses. In June 2014, the first bus was transformed into a “mobile hygiene” unit, allowing the Lava Mae organization to bring the bus to certain areas of the city “to deliver hygiene and rekindle dignity for our homeless guests.”

Lava Mae has converted city buses into mobile shower and sanitation units for the homeless.
Lava Mae has converted city buses into mobile shower and sanitation units for the homeless.

To reap the benefits of the dormant abilities contained in urban assets, the only requirements are an ability to look past the prescribed function of an object for its additional potential, and embracing all urban elements with an eye for additional use.

The new reality is that whether spatial, financial, or material, the assets available to cities are finite. A sustainable future requires a new spirit of resourcefulness to shift attitudes from using more to doing more with the resources at hand. For while the content of cities may be finite, the context of how we use that content will transform cities from limited palettes of resources into platforms of possibility. Reprogramming the City reveals new contexts of use for existing urban content.

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