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Last week, a press release from Chicago’s Office of the Mayor proclaimed something that would have sounded like a Yes Men prank just a few years ago: Rahm Emanuel, it said, has a plan to get rid of the city’s “excess asphalt.”
It wasn’t a proposal for a big new park or recreational facility, but a plan to take little bits of public space here and there — streets, parking spots, alleyways — and turn them into places for people. It was the latest example of a municipal government taking an active role in tactical urbanism, that low-cost, low-commitment, incremental approach to city building — the “let’s not build a stadium” strategy.
For a long time, tactical urbanism was associated with guerrilla gardeners and fly-by-night pop-up parks, whereas large-scale “city planning” was seen as the job of bureaucrats with blueprints. But more and more often, City Hall is taking a more active (as opposed to purely reactive) role in these types of smaller, cheaper, localized efforts, and sometimes even leading them. “Tactical urbanism has always been a combination of both bottom-up and top-down,” says Mike Lydon, a principal at the Street Plans Collaborative, an urban planning firm, “but now you’re seeing more of these ideas proliferate at the municipal level.”
In a way, thinking small is the next logical step in America’s urban renaissance. When cities really started changing 10 or 15 years ago, the economy was booming and the Internet was a newfangled gizmo. Today, cities have less money but more ways to communicate, two conditions perfectly suited to more focused, low-cost planning. Now you can home in on a specific neighborhood (or even just a few blocks), find out what the residents there want or need, cheaply implement it on a trial basis, and make it permanent if it works.
“We try to distinguish tactical urbanism from DIY urbanism and other similar movements,” says Lydon. “The intent is always to make something long-term and permanent.” In essence, cheap, ephemeral projects act as advertisements for better infrastructure. A roll-up crosswalk ends up painted onto the street by the city. An instant playground is taken over and maintained by the parks department. Just last week in Cleveland, after a pop-up cycle track was removed after its one-week lifespan, locals, disappointed to see it gone, starting asking the city for a permanent one to replace it.
Its easy to see why penny-pinching local governments would want to get in on this. The pedestrianization of Times Square, which began in 2009 as a pilot program that utilized little more than paint, orange traffic barrels and $10 lawn chairs, was a landmark moment in city-sanctioned tactical urbanism (the plaza has since been upgraded with curbs and sturdier seating). That same year, San Francisco launched Pavement to Parks, an initiative to turn underused street space into pedestrian refuges. Upon dedicating the first one, Mayor Gavin Newsom acknowledged that the city was catching up with what was already a grass-roots phenomenon. “I know that many of you have been talking about this for … at least 13 or 14 years,” he said. “Formally, it’s been at least a decade since community groups came together and talked about converting this pavement into a plaza.”
New York and San Francisco were early adopters, but Ethan Kent, vice president of the nonprofit Project for Public Spaces (PPS), says that until recently, such efforts existed as “a cool trend, but not the paradigm shift” that’s now transforming official policy. Last week in Philadelphia, for instance, the chief of staff for the mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities announced that the city would add more parklets and pedestrian plazas this year, building on the success of the Porch, a public plaza created in November out of underused space near 30th Street Station for the low cost (by municipal standards) of $300,000. This “Lighter Quicker Cheaper” endeavor, as PPS calls it, resulted in a space where less turned out to be more: Instead of spending lots of money to program it, it was left flexible for people to program themselves. Today, depending on when you show up at the Porch, you could find a fitness class, a farmer’s market, a live performance, or some of the 16,000 people who work within a five-minute walk eating lunch there.
Before the Porch, that plaza was a “place desert,” one of those weirdly barren, urban no man’s lands. There was nothing wrong with its location. In fact, it’s just steps from the third-busiest Amtrak terminal in the country. It just needed a nudge — a little seating, a few programmed events — to get people to see it as somewhere to be and activate the space as they choose.
“The ‘Lighter Quicker Cheaper’ method gets people focused on the uses,” says Kent. “Typically people can’t see how they can change the public realm because they feel like they’re depending on big capital projects.” But when city governments become tactical urbanists, it combines the best of both worlds: a space provided and sanctioned by the city, but one that the community can remake in its own image.
One concern is that such methods are just budget cutting dressed up as innovation, the government sloughing its planning duties onto its citizens — a risk that Lydon is aware of. “In some cases these pilot projects look cheap, and that’s not a good thing if the city’s not intent on either making them permanent or removing them,” he says. “We don’t want to see these temporary plazas go uncared for.” In fact, one of the perks of ‘Lighter Quicker Cheaper’ is that it’s easier to fail and move on. “If you’re failing at $10,000 instead of a million dollars, that’s a better way to look for long-lasting changes,” says Lydon.
Still, it’s true that there can be a slapdash feel to some of these projects. In 2009, the New York Post bemoaned the “flimsy and tacky” lawn chairs in Times Square. But had that pilot program failed and the plaza not become permanent, the same paper would have been screaming about the money lost on high-quality furniture. Just three years later, cities have learned that smaller and cheaper, even if initially flimsy, is a smarter way to start. San Antonio has crowd-sourced over 300 inexpensive ideas from its residents on how to make its tourist-oriented downtown more appealing to locals. And a redesign plan for Baltimore’s downtown talks about restricting parking at certain times of day to recapture pedestrian space — a no-cost solution that simply opens up space for multiple uses.
“Through this layering of uses, emergent qualities and serendipitous activities start to happen,” says Kent. “This isn’t just hanging flower baskets. It’s enabling communities to showcase their identity in the public realm.”
How should we build the cities of our dreams? How do we create the urban spaces which reflect our values and the ways we want to live? In cities around the world, the future is being created now -- and Henry Grabar will chronicle the most exciting and innovative ideas. Follow him on Twitter at @henrygrabar.