Architect Wants To Reclaim Public Space, One Dumpster At A Time

How to grow a generation of proactive urbanites much like one would grow mushrooms: in a dumpster.

Decades of rampant privatization have left New York’s public spaces endangered. The backlash frothed and bubbled with the OWS protests of two years ago, but has since quieted. There were many lessons to be learned, and for designers, these included seeing that incremental change is possible in spontaneous bursts that work to subvert zoning codes or property boundaries. Their efforts most frequently took the form of informal installations that could literally pop up anywhere in the city and scuttle away before the authorities came knocking.


Designer John H. Locke sympathizes with these aims. But where others attempt to hijack a park or crowded sidewalk, his latest project goes where none have dared. Locke and his collaborators at the Department of Urban Betterment (DUB) literally went dumpster diving for a pop-up prototype that they say could deliver social and cultural benefits to New York neighborhoods.

The idea behind the fittingly named Inflato Dumpster is simple, and more important, feasible, Locke says. He points to the tent’s $3,700 price tag, which DUB hopes to pay with funds from the project’s Kickstarter. The parti consists of an inflatable, tent-like structure made of cheap, biodegradable mylar and, of course, an empty dumpster. The former is inflated inside the dumpster, taking advantage of a footprint roughly eight feet wide by 23 feet long. The tent roof then peaks at 25 feet, creating an airy and generous interior space amenable to hack-a-thons, urban strategy demos, workshops, and film exhibitions. The whole thing can be easily deflated, so by the time street cleaners or the trash collectors have swept through, not a trace is left of the inner-dumpster guerrilla activities.

Locke heralds the lowly dumpster as “the solid base of the intervention.” That key piece of urban infrastructure is what differentiates DUB’s from similarly minded pop-ups. The Inflato Dumpster forms a small, self-contained world of its own within the confines of the trash receptacle. It’s of the street and separate from it, which, Locke tells Co.Design, “allows us to find and exploit street occupancy rules,” without actually disturbing or occluding street activity. At the same time, the inflatable quality “lets us quickly deploy inhabitable space as a backdrop for activities that are naturally suited to these same questions of public space.”

It’s a nuanced solution that nudges against city legislation, and ad hoc urban design is an area in which Locke has some experience. His Phone Booth Book Share, which used New York payphone kiosks to stock libraries, was an Internet sensation (though a pragmatic failure). Even so, the experience inspired his serial experiments with neglected articles of city space. A dumpster, “something typically associated with waste and discarded materials,” says Locke, is impermanent, and it frames an immersive environment that’s partially concealed, leaving its interior somewhat of a mystery to passers-by.

Exactly what happens inside the Inflato is to be determined, but Locke envisions constructive and entertaining programs that engage nearby residents. The idea, he says, is to equip locals with the tools they’ll need to “become more engaged members of public space.” Long after the Inflato has come and gone, he hopes that the experience will trigger “a ripple of aftereffects that will germinate practical ideas and actions that are more inclusionary and empowering for the neighborhood.”

Perhaps his is a plan that inflates the role of the individual citizen–blasé urbanite one day, public space activist the next.


About the author

Sammy is a writer, designer, and ice cream maker based in New York. He once lived in China before being an editor at Architizer.