Unlocking Urban Vibrancy

Pop-up urbanism can amplify a neighbourhood’s brand – as long as the spirit is in keeping with an area’s authentic identity.


Over the past 25 years, Bankside has undergone significant transformation, with major redevelopment projects reshaping its landscape. Work continues apace across the neighbourhood with at least 20 schemes in the pipeline, including the completion of the new Borough Yards retail destination. Amidst these commercial property schemes are culture-led art installations strategically placed around the area by Business Improvement District (BID) Better Bankside. On the face of it, these placemaking activations might seem far less influential than the work of Bankside developers, but the reality is quite different. These creative details are key to amplifying the vibrancy and eclecticism of Bankside’s ‘London’s Other Side’ identity, and this is the very thing that inspires financial investment amongst developers.

Last month, in collaboration with JTRE London, we installed a ‘playable’ Urban Playground outside the Triptych building. The fluffy, blue and pink sculpture offers a pocket of vibrant surprise, which will encourage workers, Banksiders and tourists to stop, rest, meet and engage in non-prescriptive ‘play’. Its installation is deliberate and thoughtful, and just one example of the creative details we are using to maintain the distinctiveness and dynamism of Bankside. It is also a way to influence how people use and move around our neighbourhood. Triptych Bankside is an iconic building, and this pop-up will encourage people, other than those who work inside, to stop and dwell.

We have known for a long time that public art, strategically placed, also influences how people navigate and experience areas. An example of this is a recent commission focused on Borough High Street, an area with a medieval network of inns and yards that historically went unnoticed. Better Bankside commissioned Artist Farouk Agoro to create a mural at the gateway to Mermaid Court. This large-scale piece of public art has transformed an underused thoroughfare into a visually-engaging space. It has not only drawn attention to the historical significance of these particular streets, but it has also diverted pedestrian traffic from one of Bankside’s busiest streets to its lesser-known alleys.

Over time, street art in Bankside has become layered, building a critical mass of irreverent creativity that has become synonymous with the area and its identity. Importantly, the street art tells the story of Bankside – its history and its unique brand as a destination – and this is critical when it comes to using temporary architecture in the urban realm. The key principle is that, even if temporary, decisions around art and public structures must align seamlessly with a place’s authentic heritage and narrative. It must fit with what is already material in an area. To celebrate 25 years of Shakespeare’s Globe, we organised a public art trail featuring 25 Shakespeare quotes interpreted by 25 different artists and creators, including a prominent mural by Luke Embden, which can be seen at the neighbourhood’s vibrant bar, Flat Iron Square. The Shakespeare trail was temporary, but the thinking behind it was based on Bankside’s lasting history, heritage and the fact that Shakespeare’s Globe is part of our neighbourhood, and much of the art has remained in the public realm to this date.

Our Bankside Urban Forest strategy, launched in 2007, is a testament to Better Bankside’s commitment to enhancing public spaces, and this has principally been delivered through temporary, pop-up architecture. This initiative goes beyond simple greening; it aims to punctuate streets and spaces with elements of interest, be it public art, seating areas or unique planters. In a maze of historic streets and places, creative details are strategically employed to encourage people to enjoy areas outside the landmark sites. Notably, the Better Air benches, designed as colourful seating areas and unusual planters, have successfully captured the attention of passersby, even when placed in unexpected locations.

For Bankside, pop-up urbanism works particularly well because it plays into its distinctive identity. The uniqueness, vibrancy and lack of homogeneity in surprising and new details align with the spirit of the area.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, where the significance of “place” has taken on a new meaning, the ability to offer something genuinely different becomes crucial in attracting people to districts like Bankside. In this context, temporary architecture can not only amplify what already exists but also resonate with areas that have a playful and creative spirit.

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