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A Better Backyard

How could Richmond reshape itself as a city? A new exhibit offers inventive solutions.



In his travel memoir, “The Bicycle Diaries,” musician and visual artist David Byrne makes a case for imagining not only what a city can be now, but also what could be achieved in a hundred years. The point is that it’s easy to summarily dismiss ideas seen as idealistic or pragmatically improbable. But those same ideas can feel achievable over time.

A new exhibit at the Virginia Center for Architecture, “Reprogramming the City: Opportunities for Urban Infrastructures,” offers a global overview of ways to re-imagine and re-purpose the existing hardware of a city. The project was created by urban designer and writer, Scott Burnham, who has engaged initiatives in 11 cities worldwide.

By increasing the functionality of what’s already in place, you can increase the quality of life throughout a city. The infrastructure no longer is the end of a prior creative process but the beginning of a new one. Don’t reinvent the wheel — just adapt it to how residents want to live.

For Richmond, this fascinating show offers plenty of engaging ideas to borrow from the global brain trust:

1. Bright shelter

From St. Petersburg, Russia, comes Mikhail Belvaey’s concept of Lampbrellas, lamp posts with rain sensors that open large umbrellas with the first drops, thus providing shelter for those caught without their own. With 7-foot-2-inch diameters and 6-feet-5-inches tall, they’re plenty big enough for multiple people.

Richmond Rx: Put Lampbrellas near where people gather, namely bus shelters, bus stops and Sugar Shack.

2. Overhead

Who isn’t tired of the ubiquity of scaffolding with so many historic buildings undergoing renovation? New York designers Bland Hoke and Howard Chambers conceived of Softwalks — kits of parts including seats, counters, lights and planters that can be easily assembled in place on scaffolding for public dining, waiting or resting. They effectively turn ugly inconveniences into useful public spaces.

Richmond Rx: Install Softwalks on the scaffolding of the planned Quirk boutique hotel on Broad Street in the arts district, providing a gathering place for the surrounding creative community.


3. Green billboards

The only thing worse than the visual pollution of billboards is empty billboard structures. Cities that have banned outdoor advertising can look to Los Angeles artist Stephen Glassman’s Urban Air project, which he funded through Kickstarter. Stripping billboard frames of their commercial facades, he transforms them into planters with living, breathing, air-cleaning bamboo gardens. A watering system mounted on the structure generates misting clouds to keep the bamboo healthy.

Richmond Rx: Glassman wants to take the project to other cities. Perhaps we can pull a Foo Fighters move — raise the money first and send him photos of those awful billboard structures in Jackson Ward. How can he say no?


4. Steps closer

Leave it to Parisians to find a civilized way to eat on the steps of public buildings. La Grande Cantine is Jean-Baptiste Hardoin’s easily installed and removable seating system. Wooden picnic tablelike structures have supports on only one side because the other side of the table and benches rests on the building’s steps. This way, friends and co-workers enjoy face-to-face interaction while eating rather than more solitary front-facing meals perched on stone steps.

Richmond Rx: Imagine the discourse possible with Virginia Commonwealth University students and faculty lunching on tables atop the steps of Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.

5. Under the bridge

What good is a trolley bridge once trolleys are history? In Milwaukee, La Dallman Architects dreamed up a use that catered to increased interest in biking and walking. The Marsupial Bridge and Urban Plaza offer a place for exercise, rest and even community activities, creating a viable space from what was nothing more than the under-bridge area.

Richmond Rx: Richmond’s personality encompasses the James and trains. The pipeline walkway is a stellar example of this kind of re-imagining, albeit only one in a city full of train bridges. The area underneath the train tracks along Dock Street cries out for a raised scenic path along the canal, uniquely framed by the massive girders of the bridge’s supports. By designating it for walkers and runners, the Capital Bike Trail is left to two-wheeled transportation. Flipping the idea on its head, the Richmond BridgePark Foundation is exploring ideas for building a park on top of a bridge across the James River, using 1838 stone railroad piers in the river and along Brown’s Island.

“Reprogramming the City: Opportunities for Urban Infrastructures” is on display at Virginia Center for Architecture, 2501 Monument Ave., through March 22. Call 644-3041 or visit

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