Tactics for Short-Term Community Revitalization

Tactics for Short-Term Community Revitalization

Image courtesy of Atlanta Streets Alive

Wide-spread economic change takes time. But while city leaders devise the solutions for urban revitalization, there’s no reason for residents to sit idly. Instead, residents can get hands-on through displays of “tactical urbanism”.

Tactical urbanism, as defined by Ryan McGreal, editor of Raise the Hammer, “is the principle that citizens can undertake direct, low-cost, high-reward actions that immediately improve some aspect of a community’s public life and demonstrate to city leaders that there are opportunities for easy, successful changes to the status quo.”

The planning trend is similar to placemaking, in which community activists use art, festivals and other activities to attract residents to neighborhoods that might otherwise be desolate. But one of the things that makes tactical urbanism different from placemaking is the ability for residents to test ideas using “lighter, quicker and cheaper” interventions. If an intervention is successful, it pushes city leaders to change the status quo. If the intervention is a bust, no harm done.

 Last week, my neighborhood went through a three-day community charette to envision the future of the Square. A vibrant place already, the area risks deterioration if the city, residents and business owners don’t make a commitment to investing in the neighborhood. Mike Lydon, one of the nation’s leading “tactical urbanism” consultants, challenged us to close a well-used surface parking lot and turn it into a public plaza. For three days, the 12-space lot was then transformed into a place with food trucks, picnic tables, and street performers.

What happened? Hundreds of residents gathered throughout the course of the three days to enjoy food from a variety of local restaurants serving food out of their trucks. People filled out note cards and shared with city planners what they would like to see improved upon in the neighborhood. A guitar-playing duo set up shop and entertained residents one night. And another group of people gathered to build and paint adirondack chairs that will later be installed in the Square.

But perhaps just as important is what didn’t happen. There wasn’t a traffic jam leading up to the closed plaza. There wasn’t a parking crisis in lieu of the eliminated parking spaces. The city did not lose money as a result of the food trucks taking up metered parking spaces (in fact, the trucks paid permits that generated substantially more money than the meters would have). And as far as we know—local restaurant establishments did not lose significant business to the food trucks. Instead, it brought people to an underutilized portion of the Square that actually helped draw attention to the local businesses.

To the dismay of many, the “parking to plaza” demonstration was not permanent. At the culmination of the three-day event, Lydon presented to residents how other displays of tactical urbanism have been successful in other cities:

  • In Providence, a vacant lot with adjacent parking was turned into an outdoor movie theater. The organization sponsoring the movie series actually makes money by advertising real trailers to real movies—thereby helping to cover the costs associated with the setup/cleanup of the event.
  • In Brooklyn, a group advocated for the closing of a slip street for one year, and instead closed it to traffic and turned it into a plaza with seating and planters. During the pilot, data regarding pedestrian safety, traffic flow, number and types of users, and nearly retail sales were collected. What originally began as a pilot with residents and businesses maintaining the plaza is now funded in the city’s capital budget. Nearly 60 similar projects are underway in NYC.
  • While pop-up shops and restaurants have already sprung up in cities across the country, a more innovative concept is the pop-up city hall. By establishing temporary locations in various city neighborhoods for residents to pay bills (utilities, parking, etc.) and businesses to obtain permits, it easies pressure on City Hall and provides a less intimidating venue for residents to air grievances or suggest changes they’d like to see in their neighborhoods.
  • “Street seats” have been creatively installed in places that otherwise lack places to rest. Street seats provide an alternative place for people to sit, take a phone call, and hang out without having to go into a restaurant or café and purchase something.  Here, a woman rests on a bench that has been build around a sidewalk tree. The bench is out of the way enough so as to not interfere with pedestrian traffic.
  • “Parklets” are another way to bring activity to a commercial district. Especially in older cities with narrow sidewalks, parklets take pressure off the sidewalk. One or two adjacent parking spaces can be converted in a patio-like area for people to sit, park their bikes, etc. Oftentimes parklets are sponsored and managed by the adjacent business. These spaces are public—not just for the customers of the business sponsoring the site. Parklets are a ramped up version of street seats, and with creative design and landscaping, can beautify the streetscape. Boston is the latest city to allow parklets, with the first two opening just last week in the Mission Hill and Jamaica Plain neighborhoods. The city’s transportation director estimates that each parklet costs the city approximately $10,000, but the city is exploring partnerships with local businesses to maintain them.
  • In North Adams, Massachusetts, an underutilized street is turned into an urban beach for some time each summer. North Adams pioneered this concept, which has since taken off in other cities, most notably, in Paris where the Paris-Plage is now a world-famous summer event.
  • Portland, Oregon, despite its reputation as a vibrant, creative hub, has many underutilized parking lots throughout the downtown. The city began to allow vendors and food carts to set up along the periphery of some of these lots, so when walking, pedestrians don’t see the parking lot at all. These lots have become great destinations with inexpensive foods and goods; it provides entrepreneurs with an outlet to test the market and sell their goods before opening brick and mortar locations—something that many of the vendors turn around and do. This is similar to the food truck idea tested in my neighborhood, but it is more fixed and stationary. These vendor displays can be set up quickly, and provide an inexpensive outlet for helping entrepreneurs get off the ground.

Outdoor art galleries, yoga demonstrations, and four-piece quartet performances are just a few of the other tactical urbanism displays that have closed down streets and plazas in urban areas in an effort to activate portions of a commercial corridor that have yet to reach their full potential. These demonstrations are quick, efficient and inexpensive ways to highlight the change that you would like to see in your neighborhood.

So while the policymakers are hard at work devising the long-term strategies for rebuilding our urban core, don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. If there’s one thing cities are learning, it’s that short-term interventions can have long-lasting impacts that benefit residents and businesses alike.   

September 17th, 2013

TAGS: economic development | placemaking | tactical urbanism | providence | brooklyn | boston | parklets

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