The concept of "temporary" or "meanwhile use" goes back to long before the term slipped into the narrative of urban policy agendas. The first time an enterprising trader rolled a food truck into an empty square, they were practicing temporary urbanism.

While there was no deliberate strategy behind it, we can also see its influence in the post-collapse Soviet Union, in the ad-hoc sprouting of kiosks by small-scale traders in redundant urban spaces as the configurations of space had to adapt their forms to a radically new economic model.

But today the "temporary use" movement is taking on a new light and even becoming a mainstream strategy. The approach fits with the new, more flexible approach to urban planning we are increasingly seeing currently.

Approaches vary, but the philosophy is one that views empty lots not as an urban problem or eyesore, but instead as opportunities. It just requires a little imagination. And a lot of work.

Dealing with vacant space

As economic cycles come and go, land uses change and lots are intermittently left vacant. This is particularly visible in times of urban decline — common cases are former industrial spaces where the factories left long ago, but the spaces have yet found a viable reuse. Traditionally they have been seen as a blight — empty shopfronts are a sign of problems in the community.

Temporary use advocates encourage creative visions of what those spaces could host while they are waiting for a more permanent destiny.

There are a few common temporary use project types. The first are green spaces — community gardens/farms etc. Others are event spaces, or “pop-up” shops and retail.

It has become fashionable and practical to use shipping containers to create rejiggable temporary spaces that can house co-working spaces, retail outlets like East London’s BoxPark, or even student accommodation in the Netherlands.

Chevy-in-the-Hole: Temporary use in the Rust Belt

Various U.S. cities have experimented with the approach. Philadelphia turned an unused block into a "front porch" for the city, with changing pop-up events, a schedule of markets, beer gardens and music. But it is the growing number of former industrial spaces which might offer the greatest pickings.

What became "Chevy-in-the-Hole" was once a flagship GM production site in Flint, Michigan, surrounded by a thriving neighborhood of workers.

When the area went into decline in the 1970s, the hole left by the site created a similarly problematic hole in the community. What was once dubbed "Happy Valley" was now a 130-acre toxic wasteland.

Following a bit of work remediating and greening the landscape with funding from the EPA, flexible temporary uses have been used to bring life back to the area. In 2017, a temporary pavilion on the site was used to host a three-day art festival.

The future of ‘temporary use’ as a business model

What began as a series of nice, bottom-up experiments has now gone mainstream, and is being considered by developers as a business model.

Commercial and residential developers can now seamlessly merge temporary use strategies. It can make sense for the holders of an empty space — often tenants are allowed to remain rent-free, only covering the business rates and boosting security by occupying the site.

But there are some questions we need to ask around temporary use. Can it really reactivate a struggling urban space in the longer term? And can it make it inclusive?

These vacant spaces tend to mushroom in the hard times of recessions and can boost the chances of that space being occupied in the longer term.

But what about when the people and vibrancy that are attracted to the neighborhood, and the subsequent real estate boom, can throw out the very people who put in the sweat equity to make it “cool” in the first place? We might have reasons to be skeptical about these "pop up landscapes."

How to make temporary urbanism more resilient? "Pop-up" experiments are fun, but there is more work to be done — we need to make sure we learn from what we get right and what we get wrong.