Reusing Infrastructure to Reprogram the City

In anticipation of an upcoming Boston Society of Architects exhibition on repurposing urban infrastructure, we talked with curator Scott Burnham about his inspiration for the show.

Scott Burnham, curator of the new Boston Society of Achitects exhibition Reprogramming the City.

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On June 25, the Boston Society of Architects will host a new exhibition at its BSA Space on the repurposing of existing urban infrastructure. Called Reprogramming the City: Opportunities for Urban Infrastructure, the exhibition will contain 40 examples of reuse from cities around the world, including London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Hong Kong and Boston.

The curator, Scott Burnham, has worked in seven cities and five countries over the past 16 years. He’s been involved with a number of urban-focused efforts, including the $32 million initiative Urbis, which aimed to make cities more ecologically friendly through the creation of greener economies. In anticipation of his return to Boston for Reprogramming the City, we talked with Burnham to learn more about what to expect from a show about reuse.

Next City: What inspired you to put this together?

Scott Burnham: Reprogramming urban design is something that I’ve worked in extensively for years. This is a definitive overview. The physical stock of the city is one of the greatest untapped resources available. We have vastly more resources at any one time than we are aware of — one of them being the city. The key is using what is available for its benefit. There’s a huge distinction between designing something in the city versus designing for it.

NC: I know you’re from there, but what made you choose Boston?

Burnham: It’s a combination of factors. A lot of it is from my history working there. But I spent 16 years working around the world. I felt it was time to come home. The BSA is an exceptional organization that is really up for exploring new things in the city. There was really a wonderful union of minds. I left Boston 16 years ago because there was work I needed to do, but I’m glad that I can bring my work back here.

Umeå Energis ljusterapi (Translation: Umea Energi Light Therapy) Credit: Ola Bergengren

NC: Are there any presentations you are particularly looking forward to?

Burnham: There are a couple real signature pieces. One is City Tickets with Mayo Nissen. This is a fascinating project. I spent a lot of time talking with the city of Boston and they’re totally on board. We’re taking an existing parking pay kiosk and we’re reprogramming it. This is analogous to all urban infrastructure. Within all kiosks, there’s networking capability — there’s input and output, WiFi, it’s solar powered. The city of Boston has given us these units to repurpose to do any number of functions. This is a window for many opportunities because parking kiosks will soon be obsolete. In the same way pay phones are being re-appropriated for new uses, so will physical parking structures. These machines with tremendous capability are now available.

NC: Any idea what the uses will be?

Burnham: I’m going play to coy. If I spell it out too much, who’s going to see it? I will say that alongside the parking meter will be a space where the public could offer their own situation. What role could it play in the future? Another part of this is idea generation – asking the public their ideas.

NC: What are the inspirations behind these ideas?

Burnham: Just wanting things to be better. Sometimes it’s not much more complicated than that. I try to encourage all ideas that change a city to better serve its residents.

UTEC Potable Water Generator, Lima, Peru. Credit: UTEC

NC: Are any of the new ideas generated at the conference as good as the ones prepared?

Burnham: Absolutely! Every single person has looked at something and thought, “That could be better.” We’re working with the existing vernacular. Everyone can see what a bus stop is and what a bus stop could be. There are other ideas, like one in Lima, Peru where they adapted a billboard to capture moisture. Now it provides water to the surrounding population. It’s amazing what ideas are out there.

NC: These ideas come from everywhere, how do you find them all?

Burnham: I travel constantly, much to the chagrin of my wife. This what I do. I have a huge network of people around the world who I call or email and ask, “What’s going on, now, that you’ve found?” This [exhibition] is an example of what is going on now. The whole thing is meant to be a catalyst to get people to think differently about the city. Everything I’ve done is meant to be a catalyst.

NC: Have you ever directly affected the way a city works?

Burnham: (Laughs.) I was a visiting professor in Montreal a few years ago. Montreal has those old advertising kiosks that look exactly like those white boards but with grates underneath. I said, “Those grates could be used as wonderful public message boards!” That night, on the way back to my hotel, I saw a message that said, “Hello Scott.” That was incredible. I thought, “Message received.”

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Tags: infrastructurebostonarchitectureadaptive reuse

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