Staging Urban Landscapes: The Activation and Curation of Flexible Public Spaces

Staging Urban Landscapes explores the mechanics of the programmed space to understand how the space is managed, how many events take place annually and what the variety of overlaid objects is in some of the most successfully activated spaces. The intent of the case studies is to establish what makes a flexible space successful without being an insipid, uninspiring space, devoid of atmosphere when absent of programmed activity. Of the 28 case studies from around the world, 11 are in the UK. The culmination of this research features insight from clients, design teams and management teams responsible for the design, implementation and management of these case studies in order to understand how the activation of these spaces began with the client brief and continued through the design process. Each case study uses drawings and diagrams to explore the design of a space, its component parts, spatial configuration, scale and inbuilt ‘plug and play’ infrastructure that enables a space to accommodate a multitude of uses. The intent of the drawings and diagrams is to explore the relationship between permanence and temporality to ascertain how the space operates on a daily basis and accommodates large gatherings and events. Staging Urban Landscapes is a practical, research- and precedent-driven design tool to serve design teams in their pursuit of mastering the execution of staging public spaces.

- Foreword by Charles Waldheim, Afterword by James Corner
- Essays: Adriaan Geuze, Chris Reed, Alex Wall

Since 2007, more people reside in cities than in rural areas, requiring urban open spaces to work hard to accommodate a multitude of uses and cultural demands. The increased pressure on public spaces and a population that is increasing exponentially demand that our squares, streets and parks are renewed and refreshed as a cultural overlay to the urban infrastructure; programmed and changed as an ephemeral stage of human encounter and provocation. Subsequently, new energy is consistently breathed into these spaces to stave off the quiet social decay of static monotony or, put simply, space without change. This also encompasses meanwhile uses, where derelict buildings and under-utilised spaces are charged with the energy of community gatherings and visionary art installations that rely on the interaction of the users. Although these spaces act as placeholders for more permanent urban interventions, for a period of months or years such spaces can serve as places of gathering and platforms for social exchange, performance and communal interaction. It is no longer enough to create a space that looks beautiful yet remains static. More often than not, it is the overlay and activation that transforms a space, impacts adjacent communities and establishes a well-used and appreciated patch of public realm. The space is enlivened, an energetic atmosphere is created, which in turn attracts more people and the pattern continues. The sense of ‘renew and refresh’ that programmed spaces provide can come from borrowed infrastructure, such as the opening and closing of Tower Bridge in London, incidental public exchanges such as the Book Fair under Waterloo Bridge

in London or through commerce, such as selling plants in lower Manhattan, that dramatically changes the character of the street once business begins. The flexibility of space, how the design can accommodate a myriad of events, cultural celebrations and incidental artistic expression, is now featuring on the agenda of more and more client briefs in the public and private sector. Designers are framing proposals and competition entries around an annual calendar of events and a vision of how a proposed design can accommodate change through overlays. Infrastructures to accommodate these overlays are also being integrated into constructed projects, signalling the ambition to make these temporary events a regular and calculated aspect of the life of the space. This new-found focus on spatial performance rather than static aesthetics can generate revenue through performance and installation, which can be utilised to maintain the space, while acting as a mechanism for place-making through activation and the stirring of that great human condition: curiosity. This approach to public space design is a relatively new prerogative that public space designers must incorporate into the design process in an imaginative and compelling way. The challenge is not to fall victim to the banality of ‘less is more’ in the public canvas of our cities, favouring the capacity to hold large events while neglecting the everyday use of the space. These spaces look empty and devoid of activity, lacking a sense of purpose, attraction or the provision of comfort on any given day. Perhaps then, the most important aspect of the public spaces of our time is not the fixity of designed configuration, but rather the capacity of the space to be flexible and programmable in order to accommodate an increasingly diverse citizenship as the catalyst for spatial activation. This is a delicate balance to achieve and requires careful consideration and masterful execution through collaboration between clients, designers, event specialists and the creative team that will curate and manage the space once it is on the ground. The most successful case studies involve all of these disciplines imbricated in a bipartisan, non-territorial way. This aspect of spatial design is quickly becoming the catalyst for spatial design within design professions, evolving from the ‘landscape as art’ movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s pioneered by Peter Walker, Martha Schwartz and, to some degree, George Hargreaves. I postulate that the mid 1990s saw a shift in the consideration of flexibility and programme in design. Work by West 8 at Schouwburgplein in Rotterdam and discursive essays in James Corner’s Recovering Landscape, particularly the text by Alex Wall, signalled a move away from fixity towards flexibility.


  • Project Name

    Staging Urban Landscapes: The Activation and Curation of Flexible Public Spaces

  • Location

    Publisher: Birkhäuser Verlag, Reinach, Switzerland

  • Category

    Research, documentation and publication

  • Landscape Architect

    LDA Design Consulting Ltd

  • Client

    Cannon Ivers (Author)

  • Brief


  • Awards

    Finalist, Landscape Institute Awards 2019


  • Project Team

    B. Cannon Ivers (Author) Henriette Mueller-Stahl (Birkhauser Project Director) Silke Nalbach (Graphic Designer)

  • Year Completed


  • Project Size

    304 pages and over 1,000 illustrations, with essays by 14 external theorists, academics and practitioners

  • Contract Value


  • Additional Information

    Adriaan Geuze writes in dutch, which is then translated to english by an Irish poet named Michael O'Loughlin

  • LDA Design Consulting Ltd

    Registered Practice - (21 + Employees)
  • Approximate Map Location


    Publisher: Birkhäuser Verlag, Reinach, Switzerland

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