Imagining The City Landscape As A Creative Canvas [Future of Cities]

Imagining The City Landscape As A Creative Canvas [Future of Cities]

PSFK Labs explores artistic endeavors and considered redevelopment that are making the city landscape feel more vibrant and alluring.

  • 20 october 2013

There is a movement taking place in cities around the world which is remaining urban space not only as a place, but as a platform to grow and share ideas. In our Future Of Cities report, PSFK Labs investigated the key trends and pressing issues that will play a role in shaping the evolution of urban environments over the next decade.

A major theme identified in the report is called Urban Canvas, which looks at the ways artistic endeavors and considered redevelopment can make the city landscape feel more vibrant and alluring, while engaging citizens around shared experiences and conversations. This theme consists of six key trends: Derelict Revival, Infrastructure Reboot, Enhanced Facades, Culture Hacking, Landscape Narratives and Architectural Infographics.


The Derelict Revival trend described in the Future Of Cities report highlights how as cities struggle to find available land for new development projects, there is a counter-movement taking place that seeks to reinvigorate existing urban environments that have been neglected. The re-imagination and rehabilitation of these decaying urban environments enhances existing structures and makes them suitable for public use, while retaining the original character of the past. These modern hybrids can serve as burgeoning civic centers, bringing new opportunities for commerce and cultural exchange. An example of this is Popuphood in Oakland, CA, which offers free retail space in unused buildings to fledgling businesses. Launched by two local entrepreneurs to encourage urban renewal in Oakland where retail is struggling, the project allows local artists, designers, and retailers the opportunity to open their own stores in previously vacant storefronts for six months, rent free.


Another major trend within the Urban Canvas theme in the report is Infrastructure Reboot: As consumer technologies grow more advanced and the needs of a population evolve, much of a city’s existing infrastructure can become outmoded and therefore go underutilized. As a way to inject relevancy back into these older systems and environments, artists and developers are creating intelligent solutions for bringing them up-to-date, while keeping their original designs intact. For example, As part of New York City’s Reinvent Payphones competition, New York City officials announced a program to provide free, unlimited Wi-Fi to the public through public payphone kiosks. The city hopes to spread the public Wi-Fi throughout the city using 12,000 payphones in about 9,000 locations.

IcySigns_Tetzloff (1)

The trend of Enhanced Facades describes how artworks and other creative design solutions are being added to buildings facades and other structures to enhance the overall beauty of the urban environment. These efforts are inviting artists and even brands to help contribute to the cityscape by helping refresh drab exteriors, hide ongoing construction and complement the existing surroundings. For example, Philadelphia-based artist Steve Powers has initiated a pro-bono effort directed at helping resuscitate run-down commercial strips in Philadelphia and Brooklyn through improving the built environment. The project, ‘Icy Signs’ intends to help draw attention to small businesses in lower-income neighborhoods by manufacturing actual storefront signage for businesses along struggling retail strips across their respective cities.


Culture Hacking is a trend that describes how communities are using various forms of street art as a way to make statements about and bring attention to larger social, political and economic issues. These playful and sometimes provocative displays are designed to get people to question the status quo, creating an open discourse around important topics that often go overlooked within the context of the city. As an example of this, activists in Egypt engaged in a guerilla form of environmental and political activism by engaging in a ‘seed bombing’ campaign known as ‘Bozoor Baladi’ (Seeds of My Country). ‘Seed bombing’ is considered a political act in which small, tightly compacted balls of clay, fertilizer and seeds are thrown into public spaces and parks to create awareness about a particular agricultural cause, establish dialogue, and reclaim and beautify public spaces in the process.


The trend Landscape Narratives examines how digital technology is enabling people to attach stories, information and thoughts to specific locations and moments in time. These can be shared, followed and interacted with by others through their mobile devices, bringing more meaningful and engaging experiences to our physical environments. For example, Listen Here is a concept map that invites users to place a stethoscope-shaped RFID reader over specific points on a map to listen in on real-time streamed sounds. Microphones placed throughout the city transmit noises that can be heard in nearby bars, eateries, streetscapes and other locations identified on the map.


The final trend in the Urban Canvas theme found in the Future Of Cities report is Architectural Infographics. As a way to connect citizens with their fellow residents, their immediate surroundings and wider world events, designers and architects are working together to transform buildings and other structures into large scale information displays. These platforms use lighting and other visual reporting to relay real-time data to the population such as environmental conditions, social sentiment and election results, bringing people together around a shared experience. For example, as a celebration of the 2012 US Presidential election, New York’s Empire State Building publicly updated the real-time election by displaying lighting on its facade. Routinely lit with different colors to celebrate holidays or important events, the iconic building got into the election spirit and featured vertical light columns for each of the presidential candidates: a red streak of light for Governor Romney and blue one for President Obama.

In our Future Of Cities report, PSFK Labs examines the innovations and driving forces that will shape the urban environments of the future. To purchase the full report featuring fives themes, 28 trends and multiple examples of change, please visit the publishing page.


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