Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

CNU 21 Dispatch 2 – Tactical (New) Urbanism

Dateline: 7:58 pm June 1, 2013 Filed under:

Two years ago at CNU 19 in Madison, a couple of guys named Mike Lydon and Andrew Howard presented something called “tactical urbanism.” It sounded good – without necessarily asking for permission, you install temporary trees, crosswalks, bike lanes, sidewalk seating and inspire neighbors to take back their street. Two years later here at CNU 21 in Salt Lake City, Mike Lydon and Andrew Howard were back to present again, this time joined by Aaron Naparstek. Much has changed, but tactical urbanism holds as much potential as ever for neighborhoods to embrace their public realm and demonstrate the potential for long-term change.

Andrew Howard, co-founder of Team Better Block, now works more closely within the confines of city hall rules. He finds that getting a special event permit, regardless of whether or not it involved closing the street, is an excellent way to officially sanction tactical urbanism. Whether what happens after isn’t breaking an antiquated ordinance matters less than the fact that physically demonstrating how a street or neighborhood can function is the preferred method over holding planning meetings in a community room.

To that end, Howard has learned much from early tactical urbanism experiences. 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.

Mike Lydon of The Street Plans Collaborative 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.

So where does that leave us? In good shape, if you ask me. It has been a couple years and while tactical urbanism isn’t a fresh hipster-only idea anymore (perhaps it never was). No it is growing exponentially with an expanding list of successes and lessons learned. Most importantly it has made some impressive change to the urbanity of many cities.


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