Under Construction: keeping a transitional city usable and attractive

Cities are always under construction. It’s unavoidable. But that doesn’t mean the sites have to be ugly.


It’s a common sight for towns and cities to be full of cones and detours. It can feel never-ending. But just because something’s a construction site doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful or even add to the community.

There are a few reasons towns always seem to be under construction. From fixing old infrastructure to building something new, there’s always work to be done. Now, some places are using their construction as sites for public art and community engagement.

Constant roadwork can cause major disruption. Here we could talk about compensation, the importance of clearly informing residents, visitors and businesses, clear and intuitive detours, or accessibility. Those are all important topics we might dive into in time.

But for today we want to share some inspirational projects that kept neighbourhoods vibrant even when under transition.

The Transitional City

Christchurch is a great example of a city that has embraced its transitional state with artistic projects. After the earthquakes, the city has been under constant demolition and construction. That’s left a lot of empty lots and unused space.

This has created opportunities for exciting community projects. Projects like the Dance-O-Mat: a public dance space with music provided by an ex-laundromat washing machine. After connecting to the machine and feeding in a two-dollar coin you head to the dancefloor complete with four speakers and incredible lighting.

$2 gets you 30 minutes of lights and music from the Dance-O-Mat. Image credit: Gap Filler

The Dance-O-Mat crowd-funded over $25,000 to upgrade and relocate. The project was made by Gap Filler in 2012 and has occupied a few different spaces around Christchurch. By taking over vacant lots, these unused and often unattractive spaces become an attraction, an event.

Gap Filler has been involved in a number of these kinds of projects. Another vacant site became home to a community book exchange housed inside an old catering fridge. Currently, Gap Filler is running the world’s first giant, outdoor gaming arcade: Super Street Arcade!

In the Super Street Arcade, players are encouraged to get active and play giant, wall-mounted, retro videogames. To play you have to jump on buttons and manipulate a massive joystick making teamwork crucial.

Players get active together to back the game, Attack of the Cones! Image credit: Gap Filler

Gap Filler’s portfolio is full of fantastic inspiration for ways to make empty or transitional spaces into fun, inclusive, community projects.

And they’re not the only ones getting transitional neighbourhoods involved in artistic projects. Irrigate was an initiative that supported local artists in creating community events and installations.

The project began as a response to the disruptive construction of the central corridor in St Paul in the US. Irrigate wanted to mitigate the effects the heavy construction would have on nearby communities. So they invited artists of all kinds who lived, worked or had a vested interest in the area to create something for the neighbourhood.

Artists first took part in a one-day workshop on community engagement and placemaking, then went out and decide what projects they wanted to create. These projects had to collaborate with a community, organisation or business along the corridor.

Irrigate performance project by Nick Clausen and Iny Asian Dance. Image credit: ArtPlace America

This resulted in 600 artists creating 150 murals, installations, performances, activities and more. Business owners felt that the project directly benefitted their viability and prosperity despite the construction. The project helped people engage with their diverse neighbourhoods in myriad ways and feel more connected to their space.

Wonderful Walls

So far we’ve talked about events that take place around construction; things that occupy vacant lots or transitional spaces, or events and art that can keep an area fresh and vibrant even when under development. But what about the sites themselves?

There’s a simple and easy option: decorate the outside with art. This could be an opportunity to showcase local and emerging artists.

We’re no strangers to this. Take the art and poetry that currently surrounds the old central library in Wellington city.

A little art goes a long way. Photo credit: Mark Mitchell

In Melbourne, the Parkville metro station has been under construction since 2018 and isn’t expected to be complete until 2025. While you can’t see into the construction site itself, the area is wrapped in rotating art showcases. This is run by the Metro Tunnel Creative Program.

The new station is located near the University of Melbourne campus and multiple hospitals. For some time now, the site has featured a wall thanking healthcare professionals for their response and continued work facing covid-19.

Everyone featured worked at the Royal Melbourne Hospital which is just across the road. The wall received international acclaim and was a finalist for the 2020 Victoria Premier’s Design Awards.

The Thank You Wall features nurses, intensive care workers, virologists, microbiologists and more. Image credit: VPDA

In the past, the walls around the site featured a rotation of artwork and projects. The Parkville Storytelling Project uses the walls to showcase incredible figures and places both historical and current. Given the site’s location, many of these are medical figures (including unsung oncologists and disease specialists) and places (such as the Royal Women’s Hospital).

I lived on campus and walked through passageways lined with this artwork multiple times a week. And as much as the disruptions and detouring were frustrating, I loved these installations and getting to watch new projects appear. One month would spotlight a pioneering scientist I’d never heard of, the next would show mind-bending microscopic photography.

These projects allow a construction site to become so much more. We can use the space to highlight local stories and places even locals might not know about. And for visitors, they can gain a deeper understanding of our towns’ identities and histories.

It’s also a great opportunity to support local artists. The Parkville Storytelling Project a variety of photographers and illustrators each with very different styles to create their displays. This kept each wall unique and fresh.

Part of a wall display celebrating Dr Lucy Bryce: Haematologist and blood transfusion pioneer. Illustrated by Antra Švarcs

Finally, Metroselskabet’s Cool Construction in Denmark is taking this one step further.

This initiative is working to turn construction sites into urban art. Like the Metro Tunnel Creative Program, some of Cool Construction’s installations use static images. But others pop out of walls or are interactive.

One project, The Generous Wall by Frederik Lønow turned an area into a public picnic area. It added tables, plants and shade with furniture inspired by the geometric shapes and bright red of the construction fence. Other pieces attached stones, wooden sculptures, warped mirrors, climbable horses, lighting, windows or museum prints to the walls.

It’s hard to convey the sheer variety of these projects. Another project by Tina Kallehave titled Human to Human decorates its wall with clay impressions of handshakes. Another by Benjamin Noir invited people to colour in the 65m wall with markers. Karoline H. Larsen’s project, The Puzzle Picture allowed passers-by to pick up a drill and add to the creation.

Installation by Henrik Menné at Frederiksberg Station, 2012. Image credit: Cool Construction – Temporary Urban Art

Metroselskabet wants everyone to get involved in these projects, from established artists to kindergarten children. They say 59% of those living near these installations feel they help create a sense of added security. Further, 90% of neighbours enjoyed the artwork and 20% willingly took detours just to look at it.

In the words of artist Jacoba Niepoort, “The installations have a life of their own in the city’s urban space.”

Constructing a Transitional Art Scene

Wellington is always going to be under some level of construction. That’s inevitable. And with Let’s Get Wellington Moving and the creation of the light rail, this will only increase.

So now could be a good time to take some inspiration from these cities and projects and think about how we can make this construction more tolerable and even artistically valuable.

Could we use these spaces to tell stories and celebrate our vibrant artistic communities? What project could we create that gets the public involved in public art or educates people as they walk through our streets?

Imagine empty lots filled with things the neighbourhood can use and enjoy, even if it’s only temporary or travelling. Imagine picnic spots, music, crafts, games, mobile libraries, classes, the works. Imagine walking through the city and getting to spontaneously play.

We could create or get involved in something like the “Before I Die” project. This is a global, collaborative art project where a community or city can create a wall covered in the prompt “Before I die…” and fill it in with chalk. The result is a beautiful community project where people of all ages and backgrounds can draw, reflect, share and start conversations.

Before I Die in San Fransisco. Image credit: Katrina Kassem

There are truly an endless number of projects we could start. These projects would bring beauty, variety and storytelling into the streets of our towns (and make all that construction a little more bearable). And this discussion prompts a really interesting question.

What would we have to do not to make people avoid a construction site at all costs, but go out of their way to see it?


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