During July of 2018, CultureHouse opened a pop-up community space at Bow Market in Union Square, Somerville. This one-month iteration allowed us to test out our ideas and reflect on our progress. We came away with three main findings, which are featured below.
CultureHouse increased livability and joy
After getting the lay of the land, people really enjoyed themselves. It’s a simple fact, but an important one. Feedback showed two main reasons why people responded well to the space: it felt fun and playful as well as cozy and inviting.
When people entered CultureHouse, the swings and the trampolines were often the first things they would comment on or engage with. Visitor responses indicated how important these opportunities for play were for people to feel comfortable and happy. They shared thoughts like, “Swings are awesome”, “This is so fun”, and “I feel so inspired by this space.”
Visitors also pointed to elements of our design that made them feel comfortable and welcome. A local man who often came by the space reflected that “it was cozy, I liked the couches and the pillows. I think that made it really inviting.” Other people seemed to agree, describing the atmosphere as “open”, “artsy”, and “friendly”.
With swings, games, picture books, and trampolines, it wasn’t hard to sell the space to kids. One young girl who spent her morning jumping, swinging, and playing at CultureHouse exclaimed, “This is the best day of my life.” and, “Why do we have to leave? I like it here.” One local business owner noticed, “little kids stayed around longer, on weekends especially”. Another local business owner shared, “My daughter was down there all the time and she’s six. Because you guys had trampolines.”
Adults responded equally well to the opportunity to jump and swing. A third local business owner said that CultureHouse felt “like a playground for adults”. A visitor who immediately sat down on the swings when she entered said that she was really happy to see the swings because swinging is so enjoyable but she doesn’t feel like she can go to a playground as an adult. It is pretty hard to be upset when you are bouncing on a trampoline or swinging on a swing. Having active and interactive play and seating elements lowered the barrier of entry and attracted people of all ages to CultureHouse.
CultureHouse addressed a community need
There are not many places, safe from the elements, where someone can simply exist without spending money. When confronted with such spaces, people come to recognize what they’ve been missing. One person who came back to CultureHouse often to do work or watch the World Cup shared that “it was nice to work here and not have to pay for anything.” A local business owner shared, “as a parent, I like knowing that there’s a place that I can go without feeling like I have to buy coffee.”
And during the height of a particularly hot summer, people enjoyed the indoor aspect of the space as well. One of our most dedicated ping pong players shared that he kept coming back because it is an “indoor air conditioned activity” that, as his friend provided “gets us out of the house.” In a region known for its sometimes extreme and always rapidly changing weather, having spaces that allow you to escape the heat, rain, snow or cold is valuable. A visitor told us, “I love that it’s indoors. There are plenty of parks and beaches but this is a place without bugs, with AC, for when it’s raining.”
CultureHouse filled that general need, but also helped provide for the specific needs of our area. In the market where we popped up, there was an empty space that was not being utilized. By activating that space, we were able to provide something not yet available in the community. A woman who owns a shop in the market said that her initial reaction to CultureHouse was that, “we really need something in that space that’s like this”. Another shop owner said, “it was a great addition that area,”
Other locals described CultureHouse as “a terrific idea to create a more ‘town square’ vibe to Bow Market, as well as generate foot traffic”, and, “a wonderful use of space” that, as opposed to vacant storefronts, “maintains the neighborhood identity”. The issues of vacant storefronts and lack of public space are often discussed, but once they physically saw a solution, residents were able to dive deeper into the needs of their communities.
Local residents liked that they were able to return to the space whenever they wanted to in the month of July, and the consistency of a space to hang out where things would be happening was appealing. As soon as people heard that the space would only be open for one month, they often expressed their desire for it to stay longer. That was one of the most heartening parts of the month — it proved the other points we wanted to make: that CultureHouse was a good idea, that it brought people joy, filled a need, and should ultimately become a community fixture. Visitors said they were “sad that this is the last month” and expressed the need for a space like CultureHouse to be open in the winter.
CultureHouse attracted people and gave a reason to stay
As a frequent visitor shared, “There aren’t a whole lot of free spaces to hang out, and I was excited to see that you guys were doing that.” Normally, when people are done working or shopping or eating they will leave public and return home, but a space like CultureHouse provides them with another option — to hang out. Before CultureHouse came to the market, there was no place to do that. As a local resident shared, CultureHouse took the space, “from weirdly shaped and sized to something that was a lot more functional and that people could feel comfortable in.”
“I like that it was very casual, very relaxed, it didn’t look professional — and I mean that in a positive way. It looked like a place where you could sit, you could spread out a little bit, and you could talk.”
It is difficult for us to quantify CultureHouse’s impact on the space in Bow Market for several reasons, including a lack of prior data, inability to monitor the space 24/7, and Bow Market’s youth. Bow Market itself only opened up in Spring 2018, and many vendors are still moving in, so there is no baseline level of summer traffic. People from the surrounding community are still learning about the market, so it would be hard to attribute an increase in traffic to CultureHouse or any other factor.
However, we observed many people who had just stumbled upon the space stopping to spend time jumping on the trampolines, playing a game, or reading a book. We know that these people would not have stopped in the empty lobby, and we can say the same for the people who attended our events. One visitor told us that CultureHouse is “one of the only reasons I came here — all the businesses were closed and I just jumped on the trampolines”. He continued, “I’m actually furious that this is leaving. It’s such a pull for the area.” Ping pong provided additional staying power — people would wander in and end up playing a game (we could hear the ball bouncing upstairs at all hours).
The full CultureHouse Manual can be found at theculturehouse.org/manual.