Creating Vibrancy in the Canal District

On the evening of July 6th, 2019, over 60 people came to a previously-vacant storefront on an otherwise-empty street in Kendall Square’s Canal District to just… hang out. On that rainy Saturday, they played ping pong, drank free tea, made tie-dyed t-shirts, and spilled out onto the sidewalk. They brought their families, friends, and neighbors. They talked with people they knew and made connections with people they didn’t. A warm glow emanated from the large picture windows of 500 Kendall Street, inviting people in from the dark and stormy summer night. This vibrant, warm, and energetic gathering might not seem like anything out of the ordinary. Except if you walked down that street at the same time any Saturday before, there wouldn’t be a person to be found.

All these people were there for the opening of CultureHouse Kendall. Over the course of nine months, from July 2019 to March 2020, the pop-up community space provided space to gather, added vibrancy to the street, and drew people to the Canal District. CultureHouse Kendall, our second and longest indoor pop-up project, was a radical experiment in creating vibrancy in a place that was lacking it. The response we got from the community was overwhelming, demonstrating the need for more social infrastructure in the area.

We have measured three key impacts that CultureHouse Kendall had on the community; increasing staying-power, creating vibrancy, and making space for families.

Stickiness in the Canal District

Kendall Street is primarily a thoroughfare. It does not have the evening and weekend activation required to be vibrant and mixed-use. By creating diverse programming, offering services like free Wi-Fi and coffee, and allowing for different activities, CultureHouse Kendall created a reason to come and a reason to stay in the area.

The vast majority of our programming was on nights and weekends. Despite these being low-traffic times in the Canal District, we were able to attract people to the area by providing activities that drew them in. Unlike office buildings and restaurants, spaces for gathering and cultural activities provide a mix of uses that attract people at all times of the day.

Our community living room captured people who were already in the Canal District for activities like kayaking and ice skating. This staying power compounds the positive impact these activities have on the neighborhood by creating an integrated experience for visitors that encourages them to return.

CultureHouse Kendall encouraged long-term interactions, with 52% of visitors staying for over an hour. Spending time in spaces like CultureHouse benefits personal health, strengthens community networks, and supports the local economy.

Designing for vibrancy

We consistently heard from visitors that CultureHouse Kendall was cozy, colorful, and welcoming. In both subtle and overt ways, design communicates how a space should be used and who should use it. By designing a space that was open and familiar, we communicated that CultureHouse Kendall was a place for all.

Though the building we were in did not seem warm and welcoming before we moved in, we created visual changes that were low cost but high impact. Activating the street with colorful chairs, window writing, and interactive voting introduced vibrancy to the street. We frequently wrote on the sidewalk with chalk, and put messages on our sandwich board.

While over-use of materials and colors can be too stimulating, the use of natural materials and plants can create a sense of calm. We used soft seating in the space to further the welcoming and homey ambiance. The glow from inside CultureHouse Kendall, especially when it was dark outside, exuded warmth and comfort — a feeling that we all gravitate towards.

Spaces for families

We did not see a single person under 20 on Kendall Street during our pre-opening weekday observations, despite people under 20 making up 15% of the neighborhood population. In business-oriented areas, there is often little social infrastructure that serves families. However, the assumption that Kendall Square is a place to work, not to live, is outdated. The number of dwelling units in the neighborhood has doubled from 1990 to 2017, and the population has risen by 4,556 residents. The rest of the physical environment has lagged behind.

Families who visited CultureHouse Kendall often expressed surprise, alongside excitement, upon discovering the spot. They shared that, without a playground or kid-friendly businesses nearby, there were few places to bring their families. While children under the age of five represent 5.2% of Area 1 residents, they represented 14.5% of our visitors. Especially on weekends, parents would come to CultureHouse Kendall to sip coffee and talk to a friend while their children used the swings, played with toys, or ran around.

With CultureHouse Kendall, we drew on the area’s strengths — its walkability, access to public space, and anchor activities. We also filled its gaps by creating space to gather, enhancing the streetscape, and introducing the element of “stickiness”. While the pop-up was temporary, we gained important insight into creating vibrancy in the community. Our full impact report, created from months of qualitative and quantitative data, sums up what we learned and serves as a permanent vestige of what happened during those nine months.

You can read the CultureHouse Kendall Square Impact Report at culturehouse.cc/kendall.

CultureHouse improves livability in local communities by transforming unused spaces into vibrant social infrastructure.