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Tactical Urbanism Builds Better Blocks and Streets

Sam Newberg / Jun 21 2013

For Release Friday, June 21, 2013
Citiwire.net

Sam NewbergTactical urbanism is blossoming in the United States, bringing the opportunity to change how we look at our neighborhoods and cities, and most important, how we improve them.

In early June, on a high-traffic street in St. Paul, Minn., Andrew Howard and Team Better Block tried some tactical urbanism to help show people see just how cool the street could be.

They narrowed a busy part of East 7th Street in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood by closing a lane in each direction and putting in potted plants, trees and a bike rack.
East 7th Street
Photo Credit: Sam Newberg

They painted in a temporary crosswalk in a spot where neighbors though one was needed.
Crosswalk
Photo Credit: Sam Newberg

They set up a playground, art booths, food stands and even a piano in the street.
Street Setup
Photo Credit: Sam Newberg

They placed images and information in vacant storefront windows to help people imagine how that space could be used, especially if the street outside was more pleasant.

Tactical urbanism is a local, grassroots effort that takes a place with having high commercial vacancy and/or fast-moving traffic (and Dayton’s Bluff grapples with both problems) and installs temporary trees, crosswalks, bike lanes, sidewalk seating and temporary uses for vacant storefronts. Essentially, it’s an effort to inspire neighbors to take back their street, to imagine how great the neighborhood can be when people gather and have a little fun. It’s a fairly low-cost way to demonstrate, temporarily, the potential for long-term change.

The events are great, but how can they inspire long-term change?

In a number of ways. People of all ages who attend can leave with a different perspective on how public space can be used. They can get involved, perhaps, by hosting another event, attending a neighborhood meeting and taking part in long-range planning for the area. Or they could lobby public officials for permanent traffic calming or crosswalks.

Elected officials might attend and note what onerous or obsolete regulations might be changed, to allow safer streets or to make it easier to open small businesses. Maybe someone needing a space for a business would be inspired by seeing a use for a vacant space and decide to lease or buy a building. Holding the event in a public space and letting people touch, feel, hear, smell and experience the potential of that place can inspire more change than a hundred public meetings in an indoor community room.

Team Better Block’s co-founder, Andrew Howard, has learned much from tactical urbanism events, and he put that experience to use in St. Paul. His advice:

  • Set a date and advertise it.
  • Hold meetings on-site so people can get a feel for the place before the event.
  • Measure the changes that result. Measure how fast traffic moves, where people are sitting, how long they linger (even if you catch someone sneaking a kiss) and decibel levels. This is important. This lets you “prove” how well the changes work. Measuring can also expose what doesn’t work, which is as important as what does.
  • Don’t let it end with just one event. Follow up with 30-, 60-, and 120-day goals to touch up paint, hold a second event or see whether real estate changed hands or was leased as a result.

Other tactical urbanists, like Mike Lydon of The Street Plans Collaborative spoke recently to the Congress for the New Urbanism’s conference, CNU 21 in Salt Lake City. Lyndon emphasized how short-term tactical urbanism events can inspire long-term changes or can catalyze plans that have been languishing.

Lydon pointed to a 1969 plan for pedestrian improvements on Broadway in New York City. They sat on a shelf until 2009, when a tactical urbanism event closed the street in Times Square so people could bring folding chairs and hang out. The result: permanent changes to Broadway. That test run was needed, to let people experience how the street could be used.

Streetsblog founder (and occasional Citiwire author Aaron Naparstek was emphatic about tactical urbanism’s ability to make change. Elected officials at all levels don’t care so much about “chair bombing” as a tool, but they do care about the community it creates and the people who can spark change in their neighborhoods. Don’t downplay the political aspect of this, Naparstek implores. Most of all, Andrew Howard says, make sure it is fun. People love reclaiming their streets.
A Better Block
Photo Credit: Sam Newberg

Tactical urbanism has already made significant small-scale changes in many cities. But perhaps what I like most is its ability to let children play in the street. In and of itself, that is such a simple, elegant and wonderful thing to watch it makes me weep.

Having been to countless public planning meetings, I appreciate that tactical urbanism not only ignores “why?” in favor of “why not?” but that it shows you “Why not?” in a tangible way. Sure, a lot of work can be required to make long-term change in how we use our urban places, but tactical urbanism shows how simple the solution can be if we just do it. So bring it on. Why not?


Sam Newberg is a Twin Cities-based writer and real estate consultant who writes as Joe Urban. Reach him at sam@joe-urban.com. A version of this article first appeared at www.streets.mn.

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4 Comments

  1. Mark Spitzer
    Posted June 22, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Mock-ups and modeling are powerful time-tested design approaches that our facility with technology may have caused us to forget or neglect. We tend to think that super-realistic renderings and video simulations can substitute for actual experience; when in fact the opposite is true: people, especially groups of people, need to interact in “real” situations, even if only partially developed, in order to experience their own feelings about them.
    To increase use of this approach, we need a few tools:
    - a clear understanding of the issues related to the existing conditions and their pros and cons
    - a “cookbook” of models already in existence – many of the things we might try have already been done somewhere else
    - “permission” to experiment as a normal approach
    - a few people skilled in collaborative community building to loosely manage the process
    - a modest budget dedicated to exploration
    and, as noted as a problem in the article,
    - a time frame within which some action will be taken
    Other than that, piece of cake !

  2. Jack Malone
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Don’t be fooled. Better Block is a part of world-wide movement organized to usher in Sustainable Development at the the expense of private property owners, individual rights and the free market. It’s ultimate goal is to move rural and suburban property owners into the urban centers where cars and motorized vehicle traffic are reduced and ultimately eliminated in favor of walking, biking and rail travel. It appears desirable. Who doesn’t want a cleaner, safer more prosperous living environment? But the ultimate goals is nothing of the sort, as individuals and property owners soon realize they will be trading in their rights for a collectivist form of government where the rights of the unseen masses will trump individual rights in the name of smart growth and sustainability. It’s no joke. Own a small business and need to expand? If that business is in a sustainable development zone forget about it, as city ordinances will demand all new building be done by city approved contractors with track records building large, multi-use buildings, so you can’t even build on your own property. That’s only part of the nightmare of sustainable development, as unelected regional planning commissions trump the will of local citizens in favor of un-voted on plans that citizens ultimately have no voice in. Better Block projects are step one, which will eventually lead to funding, in part, by Smart Growth America, an outgrowth of ICLEI, International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, or, Local Governments for Sustainability (http://www.icleiusa.org), for larger expansions of smart growth projects as outlined in the Earth Charter (http://www.eearthcharterinaction.org).

    Consider its full impact, if implemented in your community or in state laws in cities like Minneapolis/St. Paul. ICLEI is a United Nations initiative organized at local levels in cities across the globe. It’s funding sources are a host of private foundations, such as the American Planning Association (http://americanpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/1994APAdoclinksUNPCSDUrbanEcologyandAgenda21.pdf), NGO’s like Planner’s Network (http://www.plannersnetwork.org/about/statement-of-principles/) and federal agencies like the EPA and The Department of Ecology (http://www.ecy.wa.gov/Sustainability/), which provide financing and initiatives for municipal governments to implement their sustainable development programs. Among these plan include the mass construction of mid and high-rise mixed use buildings to replace single home and single use buildings, with retail business’s on the bottom floor and multi-dwelling apartment housing on top floors. If this plan is fully adopted, over time cities will become overpopulated and private property and individual rights will vanish under the banner of sustainability.

    Support Better Block at your own peril. There are other ways to grow and develop truly sustainable neighborhoods and depressed areas of town than by adopting this destructive sustainability plan from Smart Growth America.

    Learn about them here: http://www.freedom21.org/un-alt.html

    And here: http://www.democratsagainstunagenda21.com/

    And here: http://www.freedomadvocates.org/

    And here: http://americanpolicy.org/

  3. Neal Peirce
    Posted June 25, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    We posted the Jack Malone comment out of courtesy to the sender. But Reader Beware — it’s filled with the dire warnings of some kind of global conspiracy (remember “Agenda 21?”) to subjugate mankind. When in fact the issues Sam raises in his article are common sense ways that good-willed humans can make their communities more livable. Of which we need a lot more, not less.

  4. Posted July 6, 2013 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    The Jack Malone comment is just a tish unhinged. The item I’m most confused about from his screed—and there is much that I am not understanding of what he wrote—is how Tactical Urbanism impedes the free market. From what I see from this whole endeavor by way of people’s reactions and real-life examples (such as street modifications in Bainbridge Island, WA), the “invisible hand” of the free market seems to be giving a giant thumbs up to sustainable, walkable, denser development.

    I really don’t see how owning a crappy stucco box in, say, a far-flung Southern California exurb as opposed to a small townhome in a vibrant urban core “protects” my individual rights any more.