In-between Spaces: Living Cities Need Voids and Edges

In urban planning, we often focus mainly on the built structures: offices, houses, retail, “formal spaces” and infrastructure. What is not addressable on Google Maps is either not existing in people’s minds or seen as a potential development opportunity by real estate companies. A special kind of space, so-called in-between spaces, elude a structured planning process.

However, I think this is a profound planning error. The “in-between” bears potential for hosting the new and creating opportunities not existing in formally defined places. More important, “in-between” not only refers to a physical location, a site, but more generally to our intentions, awareness and understanding.

In-between spaces refer to “spaces of absence, voids, and the gaps between the forms of objects. They are the edges and leftover spaces, which are ever-present in urban and architectural design, and which tend to unintentionally collide or create unfortunate divisions”.

In-between spaces create meaning and possible futures

Urban garden between buildings
Photo by Gigi on Unsplash

In-between spaces, considering different dimensions of space, such as physical, mental, cultural or social, are different to “non-places”. The term “non-place” was coined by Marc Augé to refer to “anthropological spaces of transience where the human beings remain anonymous and that do not hold enough significance to be regarded as places”.

Examples of non-places are airports, shopping malls or service areas. Interestingly, non-places are not defined by what they are, but rather by what they miss: identity, history and relations.

In contrast, in-between spaces, although often forgotten and “unseen” by residents, create a sense of identity, foster social interaction and enable new ideas. In-between spaces can be seen as a pause in functionality. Not yet defined what will happen there, they bear different potential futures which will be shaped by those who engage with the space.

Cities try to raise their profile by constructing new shopping streets and pavement cafes, hosting festivals, and allowing food trucks to operate in public squares and parks. This increased commodification of spaces often leads to processes of social inequality and the exclusion of certain groups. Free access to public spaces is increasingly threatened by privatization and commercialization. With the rise of the consumer city, public spaces become increasingly homogeneous in terms of visitors. Certain groups (most notably homeless people and youths) do not fit into the narrative of the urban renaissance, where city centers are imagined as bustling and safe places.”

Irina van Aalst

What are in-between spaces?

In-between spaces celebrate diversity and difference by signaling that everyone is welcome, free and safe to enter them. They blur the boundaries of public and private, as well as formal and informal. Especially young people are influenced by a lack of in-between spaces. They are forced to “hang out” in spaces of predetermined conventions, which are specifically appointed to them (a shopping center, the school, the parent’s house).

Because of that, teenagers as well as the general public often lack opportunities for private and independent behavior (exploring “crazy ideas” or testing new things) which would enable them to better understand and shape their own identity. Hanging out in in-between spaces enables young people to “actively do nothing” and creates opportunities for changes of direction (of thinking and doing) through encounters with other people and the place.

Examples of in-between spaces are brownfield sites (which are not contaminated), waste land, “unplanned” playgrounds, intermediate spaces between buildings and the streets (e.g. stalls, urban gardens, etc), in short, “spaces that become a place”.

In summary, in-between spaces are non-commercial, not controlled, accessible to all, not yet determined and invite its users to shape the future.

Why should we design for in-between spaces?

Photo by Justin Dream on Unsplash

In-between spaces are “empty spaces” that can be filled with any possibility. What its users project into that space – an urban jungle, a sheltered hut, a stage – shapes the space as well as anyone who engages with that space.

We need to reconsider in-between spaces as parts of a city we often forget and neglect. In-between spaces bear potential for both its users, in shaping their own identity and future, and the place itself, by giving shape and meaning to the city.

So, what can we do to foster in-between spaces within an urban fabric? First, we need a mindset shift from seeing in-between spaces as disturbing towards an understanding that they are a crucial element for both rural and urban environments. Second, we should not over-design spaces.

Not every space needs to be “final and polished”, rather the opposite is true: the best spaces are not yet finished. They are not predetermined by any conventions, they emerge and change over time through the interactions of its users. And finally, city officials and developers need to provide opportunities for in-between spaces to happen – living cities thrive through diversity and openness.

Thomas Fundneider is founder and CEO of knowledge and innovation architects theLivingCore, specializing in the areas of strategy, innovation and transformation. Having his background in landscape architecture, his focus for many years has been on establishing an innovative and entrepreneurial culture and mindset in organizations.

He co-developed leading-edge innovation methods and practical frameworks, such as “Enabling Spaces“, “leap“ and “Emergent Innovation“. Thomas Fundneider is a board member of LaFutura as well as Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science, and lectures at several European universities.

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