How to reactivate city centres with pop-up stores

Lessons learned from pop-up projects around the world

All around the world, cities are confronted with suffering neighborhoods or city centres with an increasing number of vacant storefronts. Over the last years structural changes have caused small and large shops to close down, leaving behing unoccupied or vacant buildings and storefronts. An efficient way to revitalize neighborhoods and city centres is to boost short term rentals as a step-up approach to long-term rental. Pop-up stores can bring back an ambiance in city centres, and due to their temporary character, these stores are easily accessible for many entrepreneurs and creative thinkers.

How can pop-up stores help city centres?

Temporary retail shops are a good usage of space and enable businesses to get an easy & fast access to a storefront. When smartly combined into a reactivation project, the benefits of pop-up stores grow beyond just that.

A city centre reactivation project using pop-up stores will bring additional benefits such as:

  • new foot traffic to the selected neighborhood area
  • the creation of an environment (incubator) for entrepreneurship and business development for all parties involved
  • a boost in volumes of commercial activity for all stores in that area
  • a possibility to rebrand an area through the constant buzz of the project (and the pop-up stores involved)

These additional benefits are clearly related to a reactivation project that reaches a certain scale of pop-up stores involved in one area.

Lessons learned from existing projects

Worldwide there have been an important number of reactivation projects that used pop-up stores as their main tactical instrument. These projects have accumulated some interesting learnings for future urban renewal projects. We gathered the most important for you here:

  • Create a project for maximum impact Individual pop-up stores are often perceived as having too little or just a temporary impact . For cities — considering reactivation of an urban area — a project involving multiple stores and partners might be more appropriate. The benefits of a joint project are clear: stronger communication, more means and expertise, more scale, addition of external expertise and partners, …
  • Focus on one area Ideally the pop-up stores are located in one dedicated area in the city to avoid spreading efforts all over the city.
  • Define your objectives Define and communicate the strategic ambition and goals of the project. How will success of the project be measured? For instance for landlords the main objective might not just be the extra rental income but the the reactivation of their empty properties for long-term rental. These objectives need to be official and shared within the project team upfront to avoid misunderstandings.
  • Define all expertises needed Analyse which knowlegde is missing in the project team and invite external expertise to join the team.
  • Communication with landlords Potentially the biggest challenge for a typical reactivation project will be convincing landlords to open up their spaces for short-term rentals. Plan enough time for this step as you might end up calling, mailing and talking a lot before getting individual agreements. Keep them informed on any step you take within your project and give them a personal contact they can refer to during the project. Also don’t forget to agree on minimum availability of the retail spaces they provide during the project.
  • Commitment of city councils City councils are often the initiating party of these kind of projects but having their support is a minimum requirement for any reactivation project. Having the commitment of city councils will help you to get local support, to access to key persons, to challenge local regulations, …
  • Communication with pop-up entrepreneurs and existing entrepreneurs You will need to acquire a substantial list of interested pop-up entrepreneurs and show them the benefits of participating in your project. On top of that, the involvement of the existing local entrepreneurs is crucial to get a good cooperation and understanding on the project in the neighbourhood.
  • Financials and administration Take into account the time and effort that will be needed for the administration of contracts, rental fees, insurances, …. . Assign this role to a specialised party in your project team and communicate early and clearly on the steps that will be taken to sign contracts, pay fees and open the stores.
  • Project launch and marketing Like any other pop-up project, pre-launch and continuous communication is crucial to get enough visitors for your project. Think of launching events, special events and closing down events.

Some examples of reactivation projects

Detroit, a city famously filled with abandoned buildings and blighted neighborhoods, has a major selling point for entrepreneurs: if you have an idea you want to test, Detroit has the space for it. The city offers space to entrepreneurs with ideas they want to test. They take it one step further than organizing pop-ups as seasonal stores or marketing stunts, but use them to hatch ingenious business concepts. The city stimulates local retail concepts by giving away free space for several months and even provides a budget for promising projects.

A growing number of aspiring merchants are turning empty storefronts and warehouses into experimental labs for temporary businesses. In other cities, pop-up stores often house seasonal stores or marketing stunts. In Detroit — a troubled city that holds great appeal for some entrepreneurs — these spaces are seen as the local economy’s incubation chambers. In some parts of Detroit, revitalization efforts are going so well that successful temporary stores face a somewhat unexpected challenge: finding expansion space.

Popuphood in Oakland describes themselves as “a small-business incubator revitalizing neighborhoods, block by block.” Over the last years they have run an number of activation projects for cities and Business Improvement Districts.

Another example is Kapellen, a small city located near Antwerpen in Belgium, who introduced a pop-up project during the Christmas period in 2013 to breathe new life into empty stores in the city center. The project team included the city council, a vacancy management company and the local Chamber of Commerce. The project team convinced several local landlords to temporarily rent out their retail space. As a next step, creatives and entrepreneurs such as a photographers and designers were invited to open up temporary shops. They blended in well with the neighborhood by introducing themselves and their projects personally to their lenders and other local shop owners. All eight pop-up stores resulted in a triple win: revenue for the property owners, brand awareness for the entrepreneurs and a creative use of otherwise unoccupied space. And in addition, landlords can rent out their space more quickly after hosting a pop-up projects, which showcases the endless possibilities in their space. The project enabled even some temporary renters to convert to a long-term contract after their pop-up store project.

Your own reactivation project?

Do you want to run your own city reactivation project using pop-up retail?

Spacified can help you with your approach, project execution and tools, feel free to contact us with your request and ideas.

Or do you want to share your own experiences with using pop-up stores as a city reactivation tool? Share your experiences or drop us a line today.

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Originally published at on May 6, 2014.

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