How Tactical Urbanism Can Help Build a #BetterMainStreet

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So you want to transform your downtown but only have a shoestring budget. Or your volunteers are willing to help out but the last thing they want to do is sit through endless meetings to make ANOTHER plan that will never translate in to results. What is any self-respecting Main Street manager, public official, or volunteer to do?

The Emergence of Tactical Urbanism

Within the past few years a revolution has occurred in how people go about making places better. Planning practice for the past few decades has been defined by a top down approach with all knowing “experts” providing their guidance. Public participation was often limited to providing a smattering of input in hearings or town meetings after key elements of major projects had already been decided. What this resulted in were places that while logical and well planned, lacked the identity, attractiveness, and soul of places that people love.

The Great Recession threw a major wrench in these top-down projects. No longer did the public sector have millions of dollars of taxpayer money to spend on the next big fix, whether it be for another stadium, conference center, aquarium, or some other project of this type. The curtailment of commercial lending also seriously hampered the ability of the private sector to bring viable projects of any kind to market.

As Main Street practitioners have known for some time, in adversity and challenge is opportunity. Government at all levels has no money? No problem. Developers can’t get financing for that next big project downtown? No worries. A do-it-yourself movement has emerged to make changes to places on a shoestring budget. With social media and the Internet and the nearly ubiquitous smart phone with camera, citizen placemakers now have the tools needed to share their innovative ideas with people all over the planet instantaneously.

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Today practitioners of tactical urbanism are transforming places all around for the better. This approach calls for low cost short-term interventions that plant the seeds for long-term change. In the Tactical Urbanism Manual, vol. 2, Mike Lydon of Street Plans Collaborative and his co-authors define tactical urbanism as having the following characteristics:

1.    A deliberate, phased approach to instigating change.
2.    An offering of local ideas for local planning challenges.
3.    Short-term commitment and realistic expectations.
4.    Low-risks, with a possibly high reward.
5.    The development of social capital between citizens, and the building of organizational capacity between public/private institutions, non-profit/NGOs, and their constituents.

These tactics range from the sanctioned to the unsanctioned and are carried out by a variety of actors from artists, activists, and community groups (such as Main Street programs); to non-profits, entrepreneurs, and developers; and even city agencies, business improvement districts, and mayors themselves.

A key ingredient in tactical urbanism is involving people who will most be effected by changes in the place making process. Building an Adirondack chair out of a shipping pallet makes more than just a chair. The process has educational value and demonstrates the ability and power that ordinary people have to bring about change and make places better. This in return builds a constituency and a strong movement to bring further change about.

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Tactical Urbanism and Main Street

Now, if this sounds familiar, tactical urbanism is not all that different from the citizen-initiated and led Main Street Approach® that enlightened communities have been pursuing for more than thirty years. Main Street is an incremental approach that relies on the wisdom of grassroots volunteers to transform places for the better. Main Street emphasizes the need and importance of taking action to make improvements that transform the physical form of the downtown. As changes add up this transforms the perception folks have of the downtown and creates an environment more receptive for investment. An essential ingredient to the success of Main Street is a public private partnership that brings multiple people and entities together to support downtown revitalization goals. So, in a way, Main Streeters were tactical urbanists even before tactical urbanism ever existed.

Where tactical urbanism differs from the Main Street Approach® is by advocating for taking temporary action NOW to demonstrate what is possible a few steps down the road. Rather than spending countless months or years to prepare another plan, or trying to land that one big grant, tactical urbanism encourages us to go out and make our downtown a little bit better today.

The connection between tactical urbanism and preservation did not escape then Columbia University graduate student Fernanda Sotelo. In her thesis “Beyond Temporary: Preserving the Existing Built Environment with Temporary Urban Interventions,” Sotelo analyzes several examples of temporary interventions and suggests a hybrid approach where citizen-led transformations to the historic built environment can help to achieve long-term preservation goals.

Perhaps the area where tactical urbanism, historic preservation, and the Main Street Approach® overlap best is in the Build a Better Block project started by Jason Roberts in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, Texas in 2010. Better Block calls for enlisting volunteers to perform interventions on a single block over a 48 hour period.  Some of the tactics that might be used are temporary bike lanes, pop-up shops, and pop-up parks, just to name a few.

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Tactical Urbanists Take to the Streets (and Sidewalks)

The public realm and our streets and sidewalks are one area where tactical urbanists have thrived. The Open Streets movement has closed off streets to cars and made them available for a variety of activities like walking, bicycling, and skating. The Play Streets movement is a similar tactic to close streets off and make them available for people of all ages to play.

Park(ing) Day is an annual event where parking spaces are transformed in to park-like spaces for the enjoyment of the public. Sod is laid down on the asphalt then benches, picnic tables, planters, and other amenities are added. This event has been considered as a precursor for the pavement to plazas and parklet movements.

Pavement to plazas converts asphalt that is not being fully utilized in to public space. For the cost of paint and a few barriers usable public space is made. New York City’s Times Square is perhaps one of the most successful applications of this tactic. The Pavement to Parks program or “parklets” transform street parking spaces to provide new amenities and public space. A platform rests on the street and sits flush with the sidewalk. Then a variety of activities may take place in a space where there was just parking before.

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From Tactical Urbanism to Tactical Economy

By now you might be thinking, well, all of this sounds good, but how is it going to help build a strong and resilient local economy? Fortunately, tactical urbanists have an answer for that too. Take the parklet, for example. With the addition of tables, seating, and a vendor serving coffee, voila, you now have a pop-up café in your downtown for just a few hundred dollars.

Have a business that is thinking about starting up downtown, but not sure if they can afford the costs? The pop-up shop is your answer. Ask a building owner if they’d be willing to give a space for three to six months for an aspiring business to start out. Then spend the bare minimum of money to get the space open and determine if there is market demand for the product or service offered. If successful over this trial period the pop-up shops can become permanent addition to your downtown.

The ability of sidewalks and public spaces to support entrepreneurial activity should not be overlooked. Mobile vendors only need a few square feet to provide needed services, bring activity to underutilized public spaces, and give vendors an opportunity to build wealth for themselves.  Food carts are another tactic that brings new businesses in and tests out the market demand in an area for their offerings. Food attracts people and has the ancillary benefit of increasing spending for nearby businesses.

Cincinnati-based author Della Rucker, author of The Local Economy Revolution has speculated on how we may move from tactical urbanism to a concept she calls “tactical economy.” Instead of putting our increasingly limited resources in to another streetscape project that brings stamped pavement and pretty lights, though that fails to live up to their promised economic impact, perhaps we need to take the limited resources we have and build a tactical economy.

Sounds like a good idea but not sure how this works out? All you have to do is look to communities where this approach has been applied successfully. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll feature two Main Street communities that have both utilized tactical urbanism to great advantage. We’ll then speculate on the power of tactical urbanism has to help Main Street programs get results all over the country.