I have written a few blog entries and posted a few videos at the Local Economy Revolution book web site this week about an event that I participated in last weekend in Middlesboro, Kentucky. This small town on the edge of the Cumberland Gap held an event called Better Block Boro, and I was one of three national figures who were invited to come, participate and share our expertise. The other two, Mike Lydon of The Street Plans Collaborative and Matt Tomasulo of Walk Your City, helped the participants implement some tactical urbanism strategies to demonstrate the impact that some relatively simple improvements could make in terms of the downtown area’s quality of life.
I, on the other hand, spent most of the day in “pop-up” conversations with Mike, Tom, Isaac (the downtown program manager) and many others about how low-cost, low-risk improvements like these impact local economies. With everything that was going on, we had a lot of food for thought.
You can review some of the photos and videos from that event at localeconomyrevolutionbook.com.
As I was driving away from Middlesboro that afternoon, I started thinking more directly about how the principles behind tactical urbanism might be applied to revitalizing local economies as well. There’s several spoken and, sometimes, unspoken assumptions behind tactical urbanism that drive this strategy’s relevance and increasing importance for communities these days. Without cribbing from any of the standard sources, here’s my interpretation of why Better Block/tactical urbanism efforts have become such a powerful part of the urban planning landscape:
- They focus on improvements that are achievable in the short term. Rather than waiting to pull together the funding, the plans, the approvals needed to do a Big Project, they emphasize doing what they can do with what’s available. Pallets get turned into chairs and bike racks and tables and hanging planters (how many uses can you think of for a wooden delivery pallet? A whole lot more than I had come up with, apparently). Vacant lots get turned into outdoor dining spaces and music stages, and extra parking spaces turn into community gathering spots.
- They place emphasis on the community education that comes from the improvements as much or more so than the actual thing they build themselves. The goal of a pallet street chair isn’t just to give people someplace to sit. It’s to give them a real-world lesson in the impact of making public spaces comfortable for people to hang out in. The implicit realization: many places have had such paltry human-scale public space investment over the last couple of generations that building support for meaningful investments means physically demonstrating what we can do and how it can impact the community.
- They know that iterative is OK. A Better Block event is by its nature a little messy. You have volunteers working on a dozen little projects, things being built out of castoffs, “scavengers” hunting for more wood or tarps or whatever, and a constant stream of “Where can I find an extension cord?” “Do you know where the staple gun is?” “What do you need me to do?” The goal isn’t to do everything. It’s to do enough, this time, with what we’ve got, to move things forward, to spark some understanding and some energy, to get farther down the road to something better than we are today.
One thing Mike Lydon told me is that when his firm proposes to design conventional streetscapes or park improvements or the like anymore, they add a tactical urbanism piece to their proposal — they want to build something physical, something temporary, to maintain the community’s desire to implement the full plan during the long period between finishing the pretty pictures and getting the funding and approvals together to build the permanent project. They’ve come to understand that people need to see forward momentum, that simply designing something to plop into a space often doesn’t empower the change in minds and hearts necessary to make real community change happen. After decades of working with urban planners and designers across the spectrum, I felt like a veil had been lifted.
The broad conditions that I think have led to the growth of tactical urbanism pull from the same zeitgeist that is impacting how we do a lot of the work that we find ourselves needing to do with our community’s economy. That includes:
- Not enough money to do the big projects that we relied on in years past
- Increasing awareness of the complexity and interrelated impacts that those big projects can generate
- Increasing levels of peoples’ ability to access and spread their own information (or misinformation) about your Big Project’s feared impacts
- Increasing distrust that the Big Project will have all the benefits that its supporters promise.
For physical planners, those Big Projects might have been multi-million dollar streetscapes or parks. For people in economic development and revitalization, that might be big commercial building projects, things that require big financial incentives, big business recruitment. Just like the streetscapes and the parks, those kinds of economic projects still happen in many places, but the broad trend seems to be that they are getting harder to do, demand more and more money and staff time and community energy, and too often fail to live up to their promised impacts.
So, this is the germ of an idea, and I’m putting it out to you for your ideas, thoughts, brick-throwing exercise, whatever.
I think that we need to start developing a Tactical Economy toolkit. When people want to do Better Block stuff, a quick Google search can give them all sorts of ideas for projects to try and stuff to build. Part of what people find when they do that search is simply ideas that they might not have come up with otherwise (how often do you think of putting up guerilla historic signs?), while the other part is specific plans and step-by-step instructions, such as to build a chair. Not exactly something you want to just take a flyer at and then leave out for people to sit on.
We need both of these in Tactical Economy toolkit. Some of the tools might be pretty straightforward to implement – the challenge may be simply helping people think of them. Others might require some how-to instructions.
What do you think?