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Planning Pop Ups in Public Spaces

Last December, Aaron Greiner and his three collaborators threw a couch, rug, table, a few chairs and sheets of cardboard into the back of his parents' minivan and drove to Central Square in Cambridge.

There, they built a pop-up — a temporary public space where anybody and everybody was welcome. With temperatures below freezing, passersby were invited to have their photo taken in front of a painted backdrop of a tropical beach.

They could also fill in their response to “I wish I had a space to…” on a prompt board. There was also a make-shift living room area where people could sit with blankets on their laps and sign a guest book.

Four hours later, everything was packed back into the van and it was as if the pop-up had never existed. 

Greiner and his crew have built other pop-ups, the most successful an indoor and outdoor space in Somerville this summer. They call their organization CultureHouse and have big plans to expose Bostonians to the pleasures and possibilities of pop-ups, impermanent public places where people can hang out for free and bond as a community.

"It's tapped into my passion for using design to tackle issues of social equality and making cities livable," he said. "It's about how we use design to make people happy."

Greiner, who studied design engineering, discovered pop-ups as a junior in Olin's DIS in Copenhagen program. At first, he worried he'd erred in choosing Denmark. "I had friends going to tropical countries," he said, "and I was going somewhere where it was dark all day in winter and colder than Boston."

To his surprise, Greiner found that despite the weather, the Danes were a happy people. Part of the reason were the communal, public spaces all over the city. He spent a lot of time at a student center affiliated with the University of Copenhagen. Built and designed by students, there was a reading area and cafe. Anyone could come in. You didn't need to buy anything.

Greiner discovered spaces like this all across the city, open to everyone, communal, free to enter and stay. He also marveled at the bike lanes and cafes with heaters and blankets so you could eat outside during the winter. Near the harbor, there were trampolines if you felt like jumping.

As part of DIS in Copenhagen, he took classes in urban design and livability. "I was seeing real, concrete examples of what I was studying," he said. "I came away convinced it was possible anywhere."

Greiner spent that summer interning with the Dallas-based Better Block Foundation, which promotes the growth of vibrant neighborhoods. He joined in a four-day event in Barberton, Ohio, a Rust Belt city that has never fully recovered from the loss of its manufacturing base. Greiner helped add pop-up parks, bike lanes and temporary markets to an underused downtown street. "The area really came alive," he said.

With support from Olin, the Forest Foundation, and Better Block, Greiner started CultureHouse in 2017. This July, he and his team transformed an unused space in Somerville's Bow Market into a cross between a communal living room and public park.

They installed swings and mini-trampolines and put up huge cornhole boards. A coffee bar served free beverages. There were ping-pong tables, a reading nook and a stage for performances. CultureHouse also hosted 50 events such as trivia contests, a dog show, educational lectures and showings of the World Cup on TV.

And, consistent with the principles of pop-up design, it was all taken down by the end of the month. "We had people come in who had never been exposed to this kind of place and were able to understand it on a really deep, instinctive level," Greiner said. "They said things like, 'I've been wanting a place like this to exist, but didn't know it was possible.'"

Greiner's organization is now planning its next project. "We want to open up something for a longer period of time," he said.

Until that happens, expect to see day-long pop-ups pop up all over Boston. "In this country, we don't get the message that there's another way to do things and that we can spend time together in public," Greiner said. "But I saw this summer that Americans want something different. We just need to change the way we design."