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Reprogramming the city

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  June 18, 2013 11:55 AM

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1-Lima Water Billboard boy.jpg
Cities are inherently nostalgic places. Times and technology change fast, littering city streets with relics: payphones, parking meters, horse stands that no one uses anymore.

But instead of tearing down these artifacts or suffering their presence, an upcoming exhibition at the Boston Society of Architects’ BSA Space gallery proposes that we find new uses for them instead.

“The city holds a vast amount of untapped potential and ability within its infrastructure,” says Scott Burnham, director of the show, which opens June 25. “By rethinking the function and creating a new use for it, the city becomes a platform for new possibilities.”

The exhibition is called “Reprogramming the City: Opportunities for Urban Infrastructure” and it contains 30 examples from cities around the world of innovative urban retrofitting. One project is from Lima, Peru, where engineers have equipped a skyscraping billboard with a water harvesting system that collects moisture from the humid air and turns it into 25 gallons of potable water daily. Another example, equally whimsical and practical, comes from Umeå, Sweden, north of Stockholm. There, dark winter days promote seasonal depression, so city officials have installed phototherapy lights in bus shelters.

“In America and Europe, both have to do more with less,” says Burnham, who works on projects around the world and is a leader of the reprogramming movement. “Reprogramming the city is harkening back to that age old ability of people to make do with what they already have. We’re realizing that the secret isn’t to redesign more stuff for the city but to work with what we already have.”

The centerpiece of the exhibition is a parking kiosk, donated by the City of Boston. These kiosks were once on the parking payment vanguard, but increasingly they’re being replaced by smartphone apps. Burnham worked with designer Mayo Nissen to reprogram the donated kiosk so that instead of printing dashboard receipts, it spits out information about traffic conditions, Red Sox scores, and updates on repairs to local infrastructure problems like potholes and broken street lights (though of course these are all things that smartphones can do, too). The exhibition also includes a space for visitors to suggest their own kiosk reprogramming ideas.

Cities are inherently nostalgic places but, as "Reprogramming the City" demonstrates, they're inherently optimistic places, too. In real life we confront intractable policy problems like budget deficits and entitlement reform. In city life, though, it’s possible to believe that all the solutions for social life are already before us.

Image of UTEC Potable Water Generator, Lima, Peru, 2013 courtesy of the Boston Society of Architects.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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