Small-scale, temporary projects are excellent, low-cost ways to improve the urban environment.
The task of improving the public realm can often be overwhelming to urban planners and public policymakers. More often than not, municipal budgets have more responsibilities than available resources, and some improvements are simply cost-prohibitive. Design strategies come with unforeseen impacts and costs, and even the most thoroughly-vetted projects can fail to meet the expectations of local stakeholders or address public concerns. Meanwhile, long-term implementation plans have the agility of a sloth, which makes adapting, responding or even engaging with sudden economic and social changes difficult, if not impossible.
Patterns of growth and development over the past 20 years have exacerbated the issue, and our region is no exception. Since 2000, the population of the Tri-County Area has been stagnant, yet development has continued to consume land and require public services such as road and sewer infrastructure and police and fire protection. As a result, the same tax base must support larger and larger burdens each year. With every public dollar being stretched to cover growing maintenance needs, fewer capital improvement projects make the cut. The projects that do reach build-out phase tend to be extravagant in order to garner widespread support, yet face massive backlash if they underperform, risking public funding and personal careers in the process.
However, a new, informal movement has emerged as a creative solution to improve local communities, presenting fewer risks for both citizens and municipal administrations. Since 2005, numerous citizen-led initiatives have popped up across the United States, harnessing ingenuity to improve public spaces with low-cost, temporary measures. These initiatives, popularly known as tactical urbanism, have inspired planners, architects and municipal officials in many major metropolitan areas to experiment with low-cost pilot projects as a tool to make local improvements.
From Parking to Parks
The first of these tactical projects was known as Parking Day. In 2005, the San Francisco design firm ReBar transformed a single metered parking space into a temporary public park. This area had been designated by the city as lacking in public open space, but what it didn’t lack was metered parking. Paying the meter allowed ReBar to lease a piece of precious urban real estate from the city for a short time. The firm shelled out the fifty cents, rolled out a square of sod, placed a potted tree and a bench in the space, and for two hours, public parking became a public park.
When the meter ran out, the sod was rolled up and the space relinquished to the next user. One iconic picture of the original project was taken, but word spread. The installation called attention to the need for more green space, generated critical debate about how public space is created and allocated, and improved the quality of the urban human habitat—if only temporarily. The city had identified a problem, and its citizens thought up and tested a solution. Parking Day now takes place every year on the third Friday in September in more than 160 cities in 35 different countries. Last year alone, for one day, the world had over 975 new parks.
Parking Day represented a subtle shift in the paradigm. No longer were citizens passively grumbling for the city to solve an ever-growing laundry list of issues. Instead of waiting years and hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars for a grandiose, top-down solution that may or may not work, activists could implement small projects, testing their theories and drawing attention to these issues.
Soon, citizens were painting their own crosswalks; “guerilla gardening” on vacant, unkempt lots; and filling annoying potholes with colorful Legos. Groups have activated vacant buildings with temporary shops, “chair-bombed” lonely sidewalk corridors with public seating, and created temporary bike lanes out of duct tape, all in attempts to make their cities a little more livable and enjoyable. Mike Lydon of The Streets Plan Collaborative, an urban planning and design firm, gathered together various projects of this kind and published Tactical Urbanism, Volumes 1 and 2 as a resource, officially coining a name for the movement. And the momentum grew.
Sanctioning the Tactical Approach
Soon, municipalities began to take notice. To policymakers and planners, tactical urbanism more closely relates to how cities had traditionally developed, long before the boom-and-bust cycles of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This movement has five primary characteristics:
- A deliberate, phased approach to instigating change
- An offering of local ideas for local planning challenges
- Short-term commitment and realistic expectations
- Low risks, with possibly a high reward
- The development of social capital among citizens, and the building of organizational capacity among public and private institutions, nonprofits, non-governmental organizations, and their constituents.
In 2007, New York City’s former transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, began using tactical approaches to solve city problems—in spite of access to a $2 billion budget. She started testing temporary installations with temporary materials similar to those outlined in Lydon’s guide in order to determine the best use for urban space before making permanent changes to the streets of New York. Not only did the strategy save the city money, it provided evidence to support her project decisions and inspired citizens to see their urban environment in a new way. The success of this approach allowed her to create 50 pedestrian zones throughout the city, in the process repurposing 26 acres of space previously allocated for cars to a higher use.
The tactical approach is not just for major cities. Similar projects have even begun to spring up here in Peoria, most recently with the “yarn-bombing” of prominent public works of art in October. Two inconspicuous “Walk Your City” signs now reside downtown, alerting pedestrians and motorists alike that their destination may not be as far as it seems. A number of “pop-up shops” have taken place over the last year at Studios on Sheridan, while inhabitants of the Warehouse District showed how to “Rock the Block” this past June. In addition, local bike advocates from Bike Peoria used a little ingenuity and white duct tape to carve out a bike lane on Washington Street last summer.
Resources for tactical urbanism are now available for citizens and municipal administrators alike. Case studies such as Parking Day, Build a Better Block and Walk Your City provide guidance for becoming engaged and dealing with common issues, while opportunities like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Mayor’s Challenge, a competition for urban innovation ideas, are currently testing pilot projects in Chicago, Memphis and New Orleans for widespread municipal implementation. Understanding the potential challenges and opportunities of tactical urbanism will help determine the extent to which citizens and municipal leaders can take advantage of these projects and collaboratively work on the process of city-building. iBi