Going mobile

We love having ideas but making them happen is another matter. It’s easy to think up radical new thoughts but implementing them is the real challenge. When we pitched for stage three of the Knee High Design Challenge we knew we were going to need to become more agile and mobile. We also needed a mobile space for storage and a place to fabricate and ‘make’. In short we wanted to ensure that we could bring Pop up Parks to the doorstep of those who most needed our service.

Our original idea was to purchase an old ice cream van. Instead of selling ice creams we could promote street play. But we quickly realised that ice cream vans came with freezers, expensive kit we wouldn’t need, and were very popular as used vehicles. So we went back to the drawing board. We did further desk research, looking at what sort of vans were available and what others had done to create unique, customized vans.

So this is the story of how Pop up Parks bought an ambulance…

UnknownAfter much research we stumbled on a vehicle much closer to the health and wellbeing agenda than we had anticipated. An ambulance seemed to tick a lot of boxes and came with lots of exciting extra features. Could we really turn an emergency vehicle that had saved thousands of lives into a vehicle that could save lives through preventative measures?

With creative flare and a bit of self-belief we found ourselves striking a deal in Dartford with UK Ambulance Services and with a big challenge on our hands! But an ambulance really is an incredible vehicle. There are lots of special compartments and fittings perfect for storing our park equipment and although the siren and blue lights had been necessarily disabled, we found the electric ramp, oxygen supply and lots buttons that lit up all pretty exciting.

Inside, storage was the first challenge to crack. We needed to transport, store and deploy all our existing equipment, as well as future developments, all of which ranged in size, weight and fragility. From plants to large foam blocks, from wind chimes to big timber logs, it all had to be stored securely and neatly and securely.Unknown-4

The ambulance also needed space and tools to repair and make quick adaptations to all the props, as well as an extra seat and some space to rest during long, energetic days on the street. We decided to retain the majority of the storage compartments in the ambulance and remove two of the three seats, so as to open up space down one side in which to build in new additional storage units. These offered specific spaces to hold certain large pieces of equipment as well as flexible space to hold multiple large objects behind cargo netting.

A quick coat of white paint quickly made a big difference, reducing the clinical feel along with adapting the upholstery and generally striping out all the various brackets, tubing and wiring that were now superfluous.


Finally, we added a hatch, and in front of it a workbench complete with a vice. This allowed the van to become a maker workspace. The hatch was made by enlarging an existing window and using an angle grinder to cut through the plastic double skin. We inserted wooden blocks to form a structural opening and then lined it with a melamine-faced birch plywood frame. On the outside we faced the opening with 6mm birch plywood to form a flat surface to receive the hatch cover. This was made by a colleague from steel box section and sheet, welded together and with hinges welded along one side ready to screw to the timber frame. A thick timber cross bar is used with bolts to both hold the hatch closed and prop it open securely.

We felt a bit funny in our full neon yellow ambulance and we knew the externals needed transformation. We spent some time developing a design for the exterior look of our new wheels, and settled on a series of base colours overlaid with patterns taken from our developing visual brand language.


We started by stripping the old reflective panels and lettering off all sides and the roof of the ambulance. It needed a lot of work to remove all the glue and residue left over but once completely gone we where left with a good surface to start to apply the new colours via a vinyl wrap which we could cut by hand and fix quickly and efficiently right across the vehicle. Other people on James’ trading estate took great delight (as did we) in seeing the ambulance morph gradually over a number of days into something totally new and unique!


Throughout the process of creating our new mobile unit we have also been using it to Pop up Parks. Now complete, it will become an essential component of some of our parks, a backdrop to allow us to fabricate on site. The aspiration is to use the van to transform and redesign public realm spaces with the people who use those spaces.