©Nick Decombel

Pop-up for participation

A concept best known for boosting brands - the pop-up - is gaining traction as a way of creating a culture of citizen participation and imagining new visions for public spaces.

When Toon Van Biervliet of local youth charity Lifemakers heard that a new future was being envisaged for a small soulless square tucked away in the centre of Ostend he sprung into action. Soon it was home to open air yoga classes, movie nights, music concerts and street food - with an interesting difference!

“I thought it was the most exciting thing to make the space more green and give people somewhere to meet and chat and be a little more happy, as there's nothing like that in the city centre,” says Biervliet.

“We wanted to use the positive energy around the city's plans, so I asked to organise some activities to bring people together. Among these was a food stall whose speciality is a mix of worms and vegetables fried together - and looks like fish and chips!”

Yoga classes attracted citizens to the pop-up garden

From backyard to forward-looking opportunity

All these Lifemaker activities were a valuable addition to the city's own novel approach to drawing residents into the Lijnbaanstraat space - and discussions about its future.

Ostend opted for a concept well-established in the retail and restaurant worlds and now emerging as an innovative option for engaging citizens in localised conversations: the pop-up.

The city's version of this temporary placemaking tool took the form of a pop-up garden, designed as a first step in the square's transformation into a green oasis.

“Lijnbaanstraat was originally designed as a green space as can be seen from the architecture and balconies,” says Eli Devriendt, the city's landscape architect.

“There is now an opportunity to make it like a hidden garden away from the big squares full of tourists where citizens, particularly those without gardens, can come and sit and be quiet for a moment.

“There are also big opportunities for the commercial properties, for whom the square is currently just a disconnected backyard, to open cafes and cocktails facing the square.”

Local shop-owner Filip Van den Brande agrees, saying, “I adore the plans and the idea, which will certainly give a much better look to this forgotten area, and I think and hope it will be positive for my shop and others.”

This vision is a far cry from the everyday reality of life in Lijnbaanstraat. Rubbish collections. Shop deliveries. A full car park. But the impetus for its regeneration is about more than function, it's also about climate.

Like all cities striving to reduce heat stress resulting in part from dark surfaces such as parking lots which magnify the absorption of solar energy, Ostend needs to bring back vegetation to cool its urban environment.

This is why the redesign of the Lijnbaanstraat is part of CoolTowns, a European research project helping municipalities explore ways of limiting heat stress and its impact on public health and quality of life. As one of seven pilots, the project will contribute to the development of a new decision-making tool and training manual for cities.

Bringing the future to life

It was clear from the outset that all the different individuals, groups and businesses affected by the project needed to be part of the solution.

“Because of the central location of the Lijnbaanstraat it's important that multiple stakeholders are involved in an ongoing participation process - it's not enough to have a one-time meeting,” says Jan Dhondt, the city's participation expert. “By entering into a dialogue with all those involved, the future becomes less abstract and very concrete.”

The pop-up garden provided the perfect engagement hotspot for taking the temperature of views on the proposed design and gathering fresh ideas.

Local citizens were invited by letter and door-to-door calls to pop in - and others from further afield were intrigued enough to stop when they came upon the garden unexpectedly. Potential user groups such as traders, older citizens, schools, youth centres and families with children were invited to visit too.

A mini garden was put together with the speed and cost-consciousness typical of such temporary installations using unwanted trees, shrubs and pots from other city spaces. An old shipping container was reinvented as an information centre.

The pop-up featured a creatively decorated container as an information centre

Here visitors could experience seated exercise sessions or simply sit on one of the benches or beach chairs to enjoy the green space. Residents of the square also enjoyed a summer bar open exclusively for them.

In a smart municipal collaboration reinforcing the project's climate change theme, the city's energy efficiency service set up a pop-up house on the south side of Lijnbaanstraat. Here citizens could combine learning about alternative energy sources with musing over the model of the designs for the square.

Getting closer to individuals and their needs

The pop-up garden achieved all the city had hoped: opening up the city's plans to citizens in a truly entertaining and interactive way. In fact it was so popular it stayed open longer than originally planned.

At night, the Lijnbaanstraat became an outdoor cinema

“The pop-up meant we could really listen to the people affected by the proposal, down to the individual level,” says Dhont. “This is important because many elderly people live there and some were scared and felt negative towards it at first.

“We could also use the pop-up to involve people so that they felt some responsibility for the final design, which brings with it the hope that they will feel ownership of the space and help to look after the plants.”

So how did citizens' views and ideas influence the final plans for the Lijnbaanstraat?

“Some residents told us that a tunnel-like archway linking the square to the commercial area seemed a bit dark and frightening so there will now be lights along the walls,” says Lies Van Lierde, green designer for the city's public spaces.

“They also looked out for their neighbours, with some telling us about specific residents with disabilities and noting places that weren't wide enough to accommodate their wheelchairs. The connection between the community and the city became really clear and it worked in the right direction.”

Dhont adds that, “The pop-up also encouraged residents to come outside and spend time in the square and that social contact is new because there were few opportunities to meet neighbours before.”

Enabling citizens to see the space anew

The new-look square will be planted by horticulturalists to create a space that feels like a botanical garden, with ‘green islands’ of grass bordered by comfortable seating. Decorative pergolas will enable climbing plants, chosen by the residents of each apartment block, to create green walls of trailing leaves.

Next up on Ostend's list of green spaces to be redesigned are a children's farm, an area of dunes and a nature reserve. And, who knows, the city may again opt for a pop-up installation to ensure citizens are delighted with the final plans, having discovered their value in Lijnbaanstraat.

A model of the proposed design showed the square's green future

“When you do an activity like a pop-up garden in the actual space that you want to change, people see the environment in another context and that's important,” says Dhont. “Bringing plans to life in this way also helps them appreciate the advantages of the plans.”

Toon Van Biervliet is very clear what those advantages will be.

“Before, people in the city centre didn't speak to each other but in the pop-up garden conversations started with people you wouldn't normally meet and good things started to happen and I'm sure this will continue in the new green space.”

Whether or not worms will continue to be served is another matter!

The CoolTowns project will help cities deal with heat stress