Tactical Urbanism Builds Better Blocks and Streets

Tactical urbanism is already here in the Twin Cities, and it has the opportunity to change the way we look at our neighborhoods and cities, and most importantly, how we improve them. In early June, Andrew Howard and Team Better Block came to a high-traffic section of East 7th Street in St. Paul’s Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood and brought tactical urbanism to let people see just how cool the street could be. (Check out the Streets.mn podcast for the event here.) 

They narrowed 7th Street by closing a lane in each direction, putting in potted plants, trees and a bike rack.

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They painted a temporary crosswalk in a location where the neighborhood felt one should be.

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They set up a playground, art booths, food stands and even a piano in the street.

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

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So what is Tactical Urbanism? It is essentially a local, grassroots effort to take a place in a neighborhood identified as having high commercial vacancy and/or fast moving traffic (sometimes one in the same, and Dayton’s Bluff grapples with both) and install temporary trees, crosswalks, bike lanes, sidewalk seating and temporary use of vacant storefronts. Essentially it is an effort to inspire neighbors to take back their street and imagine how great their neighborhoods can be when people actually gather and have a little fun, and a fairly low-cost way to temporarily demonstrate the potential for long-term change.

The events are wonderful, but how do we get long-term changes as a result? Well, there are a number of ways. Neighbors of all ages who attend can go away with a different perspective on how public space can be used. They can get involved in a number of ways, perhaps by hosting another event, attending a neighborhood meeting and participate in long-range planning for the area, or lobby elected officials and public works officials to make that crosswalk or traffic calming permanent. Elected officials can attend and note what onerous or obsolete regulations could be changed through city council action that create safer streets or make it easier to open a small business. And perhaps someone seeking a space for a business will be inspired by how a vacant space was used tactically and decide to sign a lease or buy a building. Moreover, by doing this in a location and letting people touch, feel, hear, smell and experience the potential of the place can do more to inspire change than a hundred public meetings held in a community room.

Team Better Block’s co-founder Andrew Howard has learned much from early tactical urbanism experiences, and put this experience to use last week in St. Paul. Set a date and advertise it, he says, and hold meetings on-site so people can get a feel for the place even before the event. Most importantly, he insists on measuring the changes that result. Measure how fast traffic is moving, where people are sitting, how long they linger, even if you catch someone sneaking a kiss, and decibel levels. Only then are you able to “prove” how well this is working and inform change. Measuring can also expose what doesn’t work, which is as important as what does. And don’t just let it end with one event. Follow up with 30-, 60-, and 120-day goals to touch up paint, hold a second event or see whether any real estate changed hands or was leased as a result.

Other tactical urbanists like Mike Lydon of The Street Plans Collaborative spoke recently at CNU 21 in Salt Lake City. Lyndon emphasized how these short-term tactical urbanism events can impact long-term changes, or be the catalyst for plans that have been around forever to actually be implemented. He pointed to a 1969 plan for pedestrian improvements on Broadway in New York City that sat on a shelf until 2009, when a tactical urbanism event closed the street in Times Square, allowing people to bring folding chairs and just hang out. This resulted in actual permanent changes to Broadway, but it required the actual tactile test run, where people experienced how the street could be used, for these changes to take place. Build, measure, learn, Lydon says. Do it in small increments and embrace failure.

Streetsblog founder Aaron Naparstek was emphatic about tactical urbanism’s ability to make change. He pointed out how the power structure (elected officials at all levels) doesn’t care so much about “chair bombing” as a tool, but they do care about the community it creates and those people who together can affect change in their neighborhoods. He implores us not to downplay the political aspect of this. Most of all, Andrew Howard says, make sure it is fun. People love reclaiming their streets.

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

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I also appreciate, having been to so many public planning meetings, that tactical urbanism not only ignores the “why?” and instead asks “why not?”, it also shows you why not in a very tactile way. Of course, there is still a lot of work required by experts to make long term change, but tactical urbanism shows how simple the solution can be if we just do it. Tactical urbanism holds a lot of potential to change the way we in the Twin Cities use our urban places, so bring it on. Why not?

#cnu21

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