For Now: Getting Good Intentions Off The Ground Through Meanwhile Intervention

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By Dean Black, Guest Contributor, Belfast, Ireland

As the world continues to open up and set our ‘new normal’ in motion, our collective ‘post- pandemic’ spirit is one characterised by hope yet caution. COVID-19 remains, as does the make- shib assemblage of face masks, hand sanitisers, plastic screens, zoom meetings, and working- from-home paraphernalia, that came along with it. And while the continued prevalence of such ‘meanwhile’ infrastructure is a stark reminder of what we have endured in the abermath of March 2020, as we move forward, it equally offers that liminal, material space through which we negotiate our next steps and inform the shape of our shared future. 

For so long architects, urbanists, and planners have seen the ‘bricks and mortar’ of buildings and highways as that medium for transformation, however, their inelasticity during the pandemic have shown us the inability of our static built environment to respond to change. In learning from the ‘meanwhile’ assemblages of COVID-19 therefore, it is safe to say that the processes through which our cities and streetscapes emerge thus require new modes of radical practice and intervention. And while such discourse has gained traction over the past 18 months, at both a community and governmental level, its manifestation on the ground remains limited in the wake of what has unraveled as a distinct urban crisis. 

These modes of radical practice and intervention aren’t new to us at Urban Scale Interventions, they’re at the heart of everything we do; tackling gaps between thinking and doing through championing a people-centered approach that employs co-design and the ‘short-term’ as a means for beKer shaping the resilient places where we live, work, and play. 

The multidisciplinary nature of our team – which brings together a diversity of designers, researchers, web developers, planners, strategists, artists, and producers – makes us well placed to turn unconventional ideas into innovative realities. Take for example our new ‘Banana Block’ museum offer at Portview, Belfast that has reframed heritage through bringing together local tourism offers and authentic community spaces informed by engagement with over 200 local organisations and community groups. Or our work with the EU Creative Roobop network that aims to transform roofscapes across Europe through pop-up interventions that will inform both policy and the sustainable future of these forgoKen spaces. And that’s not all; from arts and heritage strategies for local transport providers to masterplans for Zoo’s and riverfronts, everything we do is about taking action through a boKom-up approach that can positively impact both people and place. 

Based on our various project learnings over the years, here’s 5 steps on how to get your good intentions off the ground through meanwhile uses: 

Thinking through Doing: 

Whether it’s prototyping ideas with communities through workshops or simply chaSng through potential outcomes with a potential funder, don’t wait, start now. Thinking and doing aren’t consecutive linear processes, they’re interdependent and simultaneously inform each other. At the outset of your next project make sure that the ‘brain-work’ and ‘on-the ground-work’ kick- off together – you’ll be using the ‘meantime’ more effectively in laying the grounds for both your meanwhile project and the longer-term sustainable development of urban spaces. 

Thinking through city objectives with young people. Credit: Greg Edwards, Art Director, Urban Scale Interventions

Making Connections and Facilitating Collaboration: 

From community members to creative institutions, relevant government bodies, and potential funders, a diversity of outreach is essential across all stages of a meanwhile project’s development. You’ll not only be generating buy-in for the project going forward but enriching it’s content and formation through facilitating conversations that lead to novel interactions and potential possibilities. Our international partnership with the Goethe Institute, for example, saw the delivery of a Disappearing Wall that engaged 24,000 citizens within empty public space as a cultural response to social distancing and events during the pandemic. This has led to further conversations and collaborations around how this space is used going forward. 

The Disappearing Wall delivered in partnership with the Goethe Institute at Titanic, Belfast. Credit: Greg Edwards, Art Director, Urban Scale Interventions

A Shared Story: 

While meanwhile projects are intended to inform long-term offers through testing potential interventions and continually crabing new narratives, it’s important that any pop-up is brought to life through capturing both local intelligence and a diversity of global experience from the get go. That’s why it’s paramount to create a shared language and narrative that is accessible and relevant for everyone. Language is important. Our new ‘Banana Block’ museum for example that brings people together in a heritage seSng in unprecedented ways has been brought to life by uncovering subcultural histories of the banana in Belfast through capturing local stories. Stories crabed through language that is relatable to wider global audiences, tourism bodies, and cultural institutions that are now commiKed to using this ‘meanwhile’ opportunity to inform the site’s long term offer through an extensive engagement programme. 

Visualisation of Banana Block at Portview, Belfast. Credit: Greg Edwards, Art Director, Urban Scale Interventions

Co-creation with Communities: 

It’s important from the outset of any project that local people are involved, not through tokenistic forms of consultation, but authentic on-the-ground co-design engagement. When people are involved in the ideation and creation of urban spaces they’re not only contributing to the wealth of a project but generating pride in their area which inspires civic ownership and thus positively impacts wellbeing. In the delivery of our current arts and heritage strategy with Translink (Northern Ireland’s transport provider) we’re heavily engaging with local communities from the outset to reframe contested space through the lens of pop-up interventions; from engaging young people in portraying their local heritage through the art of spray painting to reimagining hoarding as an interactive plaPorm for the collation of ideas.

Co-creation of arts and heritage through community co-design and engagement. Credit: Greg Edwards, Art Director, Urban Scale Interventions

Continual Critical Evaluation and Engagement: 

As with the nature of ‘meanwhile’ uses that aim to delineate normative processes of ideation, implementation, and evaluation, it’s important to remember that delivering pilot projects on the ground is all about learning – learning from each other and our mistakes. That’s why it’s key to ensure that throughout engagement, and co-design processes, that critical evaluation takes place across all stages of a projects delivery, and that this is measurable. As part of our work in establishing Safer Public Spaces in partnership with the Public Health Agency, for example, we’re creating well-being indicators to ensure that everything we do maximises social impact and enriches the ‘everyday’ of those involved in our work. These indicators will be key in laying the foundations for the success of future decision-making processes and projects. 

The world might still be grappling with COVID-19 and its own ‘meanwhile’ assemblages, but there’s lots to be learned from the abermath of the pandemic, and it may just be through harnessing the potential of ‘meanwhile’ uses that what we do for now can actively contribute to the creation and ambition of places for tomorrow. 


About the Author:

Dean Black is a project and research lead at Urban Scale Interventions (USI). Alongside their training and experience as an architectural designer, Dean holds an MA in Architectural History, Research, and Theory from the BartleK School of Architecture, UCL. His work with USI and the Royal College of Art, London has focused on sustainable placemaking in cities through co- design, with a particular focus on wellbeing and socio-ecological practice. 


About the USI:

Urban Scale Interventions (USI) is a creative placemaking studio based in Belfast founded by Ralf Alwani and Jak Spencer. Through creative engagement, impacPul design, and quality delivery, USI’s ethos is driven by helping cities, governments, and organisations to improve the lives of the people they serve.