The Limits of Pop-Up Urbanism



Over at my blog, I wrote today about some of the problems that both Minneapolis and St Paul have had in constructing bike infrastructure in over the past few years. In both cases (a cycle track and a bike boulevard), the city had drawn up a decent plan but had botched the implementation. Instead of actually building a good design that made sense for everyone, the final result was a piecemeal mess. It almost seemed like cities were creating satires of good bike infrastructure. It’s almost like they were mocking themselves on purpose.

Here’s the punchline of what I wrote:

At the same time, when faced with a difficult problem, cities are often tempted to compromise. Planners and city leaders end up torn between the politics of compromise and well-designed engineering. It seems that, much of the time, cities make so many compromises that they undermine the very thing they were trying to do in the first place. Sometimes, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Sometimes, you either do it right or you make a complete mockery of the very notion of urban planning. Sometimes, either you build a decent cycletrack that everyone can understand intuitively, or you compromise and construct a bicycle bewilderment with cars parked willy-nilly underneath a flashing LED circus filled with fine print. Then, two years later, you go back and gradually add in some thin white plastic things that you should have installed in the first place, and everyone on the street goes “Oh! That’s what its supposed to look like.”

The intentions, though, were good. I think that in both cases, the cycle track and the bike boulevard, the cities thought that experimentation and ‘trial periods’ would be a good compromise between doing something and doing nothing.

And to be fair, the idea of using experimental, trial, or partial treatmenets is a new and increasingly appealing trend in planning. It’s part of a movement where planners and cities become a bit more experimental and playful about street design. People have called this “tactical or “pop-up” urbanism.” The poster child for this kind of approach is surely New York City’s “temporary” removal of cars from Times Square.

Here’s how I described it a while back…

The actual process by which the Broadway redesign took place represents an intriguing new way of implementing changes to the built environment. Instead of an expensive, grand plan involving large-scale public investment and  heavy machinery, the NY DOT initially transformed Broadway  through a series of small gestures, describing the changes to the  public as part of a trial, or an experiment. At first, the city used only the bare minimum of infrastructure – just a few concrete  barriers and some moveable furniture – to demarcate and reconfigure the street. After receiving largely positive feedback  from the business community and many users along Broadway, Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn officially made the redesign permanent.

A “pop-up” parklet in San Francisco.

In many cases, I love the tactical urbanism approach. For example, an Open Streets or Cyclovia event can change an entire neighborhood overnight. Or, a few planters and some well-designed wood can transform a parking space into a lovely public space without a lot of expensive infrastructure. The “temporary” nature of the design gives planners and city officials a lot more political breathing room, because changes aren’t perceived as permanent or irreversible. There are lots of benefits to this approach!

At the same time, the two recent situations in St Paul and Minneapolis made me realize that there are lots of cases where a temporary, pop-up, or experimental design can muddy the waters. Sometimes, by doing something temporary you aggravate everyone without pleasing anyone.

So how do we figure this out? What kinds of guidelines might we have for when to try something on a piecemeal, and when to do a definitive “hard” infrastructure job the first time?

It’s difficult to say without getting into the specifics of a particular project. Certainly you want to be very clear when you’re dealing with fast-moving automobiles, which pose far and away the most danger to anyone in cities. Making things clear to automobile drivers should be a priority.

(At the same time, I’m reminded of Hans Monderman’s famous experiment in the Netherlands. Hoping to  where he removed all the traffic signage from the countryside village of Makkinga. Amazingly, when all the signs were removed, everyone’s safety improved dramatically. Because nodoby knew what to do, people drove safely and attentively. It was like the concept of “risk compensation” in reverse.)

The other guildeline is that public space should be “underprogrammed.” Instead of designing clearly demarcated pedestrian paths and acitivites, it’s often easier, more fun, and more decmoratic to “let things happen” on their own. Minneapolis’ recent Open Streets is a good example of this. The organizers intentionally didn’t define the space. They didn’t want to overwhelm the experience with specific activities. Instead their main goal was to remove the cars, and let people enjoy the street in any way they wanted.

I guess it’s difficult to know when and where to adopt a “pop-up” urbanist approach, and when to rely on more precise engineering with design clarity. The only thing I can really say is that sometimes a temporary approach is not helpful. Sometimes it is.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.