Thursday, January 5, 2012

Tactical Urbanism

By: Evan D. Robertson, Project Associate. 

Let’s face it, our urban spaces are plagued by lifeless streets with a dearth of entertainment, shopping, public space, or any sort of potential for activity. Since the dawn of suburbanization, urban America has suffered from wholesale disinvestment and planning that was too auto-centric. Atlanta is a prime example of planning centered on the automobile. While the city has excellent urban environs, they exist only in nodes. This is to say that if you wanted to move from one great urban space to another, you must get in your car and drive. To walk from one activity center to another will leave you winded and wondering how you could go from vibrant, active place to a dearth of life in so few steps. The question for our future built space is one that entails reimagining, and reclaiming, them from design that, while proven functional over the last 50 years, no longer suits the needs or demands we now place on America’s urban environments. 

Park(ing) Day is one such movement aimed at reclaiming and recreating parking spaces that dominate our built environment. The idea is simple, turn a local parking space into a park. Take a fistful of quarters; in-kind donations of sod, shrubberies, and assortment of plants; chairs and maybe a Frisbee or two and arrange these objects in an attractive fashion in any ordinary parking space, preferably one near a semi-active street. This simple act has a transformative effect on almost everyone walking by. Pedestrians will give a quick double take to see what is going on, others will stop and inquire about what you are doing, as well as to verify its legality. If you’ve brought chairs, some will sit and chat usually asking at some point in the conversation “Why can’t we do this every day?” The important part is what was dead, lifeless urban space is transformed, albeit only for a day, into an attractive destination for passers-by, a break from monotony. 

Yet, why do just an 8’ by 12’ space? Why not a city street or block? Atlanta Streets Alive and The Better Block campaign are both efforts to re-conceptualize the city street. Atlanta Streets Alive mimics theciclovia (translates to “bike path”) in Bogotá, Columbia. Atlanta Streets Alive holds an annual event in the summer where they shutdown a city street for use as a physical activity center. Individuals can skate, bike, take a yoga class, dance or do whatever they are in the mood to do. The purpose: to take back the street from the automobile while promoting more active lifestyles. In contrast, the Better Blockcampaign encourages complete streets, streets where walking, biking, and driving are all encouraged. The campaign is a “living” charrette where community members are actively engaged in the temporary revitalization of their street. The community identifies an area with good pedestrian form, but lacks activity. After the block is identified, a group of volunteers and local business leaders transform the area: installing street lights, greenery, bike lanes, patio furniture, public art, street vendors, and pop-up shops so as to reanimate the block. The goal: to conceive a livable street. 

The Next Generation of New Urbanists defines all of these urban experiments as "Tactical Urbanism." It is a movement of small scale, temporary urban change that seeks to prove what urban spaces could be like if the right type of permanent investment was used to reinvigorate fading urban areas. Moreover, tactical urbanism is a way in which local governments, with a relatively low cost investment, can “experiment” with urban revitalization. To really see what works, and what doesn’t long before immense sums of monies are invested.