Here’s an eye-catching little story of urban design innovation from the fashion trade: This week in Toronto, a little boutique opened up on King Street West in the heart of the city’s theatre and club district (and not far from its old garment district). The store stayed open for one day only – just long enough to sell the new line from a hot designer.


It’s a terrific example of the burgeoning “pop-up” movement in urban design – the idea of bringing small-scale retail and seasonal or special-event cafes into a neighborhood by using flexible temporary spaces. A building slated for demolition, a block with lots of vacancies, a back alley or sidewalk can all be repurposed for pop-up retail. The retailers get a space to sell wares without too many strings (or long-term leases or crippling rents) attached, and the urban landscape feels a little more bustling. It’s also a great way for city officials to demonstrate to their higher-ups and/or their voting citizenries that there’s nothing to be feared from looser, more flexible zoning and bylaw regimes.

What surprised me about this new Toronto pop-up, though, was the name of the little boutique retailer: Target. As in the Walmart rival with the big-box warehouses stuffed full of cheap Chinese-made wares just stylish enough to lure even hip urbanites out to the exurbs.


I shouldn’t have been surprised, because it turns out Target’s been in this game for a decade. In 2002, the retail giant anchored a small shop on a boat at Chelsea Pier in New York, and it has since used London’s iconic double-decker buses, New York’s bodegas and Chicago high-rises as pop-up props.


If there’s a difference now, though, it’s that the pop-up trend has spread far beyond the fashion scene. In New York, the Department of Transportation’s ongoing mission to win back space for non-motorized urban life on the city’s streets has included pop-up outdoor cafes in reclaimed parking spots across the city. In London, there’s now a full-blown pop-up shopping mall called Boxpark, fashioned from 61 shipping containers. A couple of years ago in Copenhagen, I saw another pop-up application for shipping containers: several of them had been arranged on a downtown square, each with a mini-concert or art installation inside.


In each case, the same simple, infectious idea works its magic: the pop-up is the embodiment of the limitless possibility of urban space. It demonstrates how malleable our cities are, how easily a delelict storefront or dingy block could become something else entirely. There’s nothing particularly sustainable about Target or any other retail enterprise, of course. But we're now living in the first truly urban century whether we like it or not, and so the sustainability of everything we do depends on our ability to reimagine and reinvent our cities.


Pop-ups make the project seem effortless, serendipitous, fun. And  the broader sustainability movement needs to capture lots more of that kind of energy if it expects to win over the whole world to its program for change.


To talk up pop-ups in 140-character bursts, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.

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