Monday, May 2, 2016

Tactical Urbanism: An Alternative for Urbanists with Less Patience?

Note the width from centerline to curb
In my previous post, I wrote about the need to move past vision into the long, often tedious task of execution if major land-use changes are to be made.

I live and believe that statement.  And I respect those who work daily toward the execution of land-use concepts that will make our communities stronger and more sustainable, especially those who have been undertaking the task for longer than me.

Within the past week, I’ve read as the Friends of SMART, the citizens group that pushed for the SMART rail system and continues to watch over its implementation, exchanged emails about their proposed “Founders’ Grove”, a public park in Santa Rosa that would remember the people who devoted much time and effort toward SMART, but passed away before the trains could begin running.  Communities thrive when idealists work hard for goals beyond their own life spans.

However, I understand there are also many who want to make a difference, but lack the willingness to work for goals that may be over the horizon.  As the cartoon of a pair of steely-eyed vultures on a branch notes, “Patience my ass, I’m gonna kill something.”

With those folks in mind, I want to recount a story I heard at CNU 22, the annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism, held in Buffalo in 2014.

In a medium-sized Canadian city near Toronto, a group of urbanists met regularly to talk about how to make their town more pedestrian friendly.  One particular intersection bothered them.  It was stop sign controlled, but many of the stops were perfunctory.

Even worse, both streets were unusually wide for two-lane streets.  For one right turn in particular, a frequent traffic movement, drivers had room to make a second lane leading into the right turn.  Pedestrians were intimidated by the rolling stops and the extra lane of travel.  Rather than risking their children, parents would drive them to school.  And senior citizens were blocked from shops they might have otherwise visited.

(The photo is from the North Bay, not Canada, but illustrates the concern.  Where the car is stopped, it’s more than 25 feet from centerline to curb, which is plenty of room for drivers making a right turn, including me upon occasion, to make a separate lane.)

The urbanists easily identified the traffic fix that was needed, a bulb-out that would keep the second lane from forming, thereby slowing traffic and making the intersection safer for pedestrians.

They took their suggestion to City Hall where it was shuffled to the bottom of a stack of other possible street improvements, few of which pertained to making the city safer for pedestrians.

Unwilling to let the idea die a quiet bureaucratic death, the urbanists hatched a plan.  One evening, after the sun had set, they arrived at the corner in a van, wearing safety vests.  By chance, a utility crew was working a block away, so the urbanists looked like another team on the same utility project.

As drivers passed by, few even giving a second glance, the urbanists laid down white striping, creating the bulb-out they’d proposed.  To ensure that the drivers saw the paint the following morning, they placed orange traffic cones along the perimeter.  And to show the world that this wasn’t an ordinary street project, they put a single yellow daffodil in each cone.  (I love the daffodil touch.  It makes the story come alive.)

When the sun rose the next morning, drivers quickly adjusted to the new paint and no longer made a second travel lane for right turns.  Pedestrians, puzzled at first by the change, soon learned that they could walk into the painted bulb in safety, making the crossing easier.  And they told their friends about the more pedestrian friendly crossing.

Meanwhile, City Hall fumed, threatening prosecution against whoever had laid down roadway striping without either approval from Public Works or an encroachment permit.  The urbanists, willing to take a chance, but stopping short of stupidity, remained quiet and out of sight.

But when the pedestrians began asking why City Hall was fussing over a change that had improved walkability, the tone shifted.  City Hall was willing to admit that the striping seemed a good idea, even finding money to redo the striping with better paint and to put up signage required for the bulb-out.  But some truculence remained, with a warning given that if anyone else undertook a similar effort, retribution would follow swiftly.

The urbanists began planning their next project.

The team had engaged in tactical urbanism, small, focused efforts to reintroduce walkable urbanism to places that have forgotten about it.

Not every tactical urbanist effort needs to tweak the nose of City Hall as much as the Canadian story, although some do.

Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns tells the story of a Memphis neighborhood that painted crosswalks and bike lanes without official sanction, although the City soon embraced the changes.

Another story from CNU 22 was about an abandoned brewery in downtown Memphis that was filled with trash and misbehavior.  A neighborhood group came together to do a clean-up, followed by stringing lights and rolling out a keg of beer.

At CNU 23 in Dallas, local consulting group Ash + Lime spoke about organizing events in empty downtown buildings in a nearby suburb, reminding the citizens of how much fun a well-filled downtown can be.

(For readers with long memories, tactical urbanism may sound similar to City Repair, about which I wrote a few years back.  The two are much alike and can be described as two sides of the same coin.  As I see the slight difference, City Repair is about building community from which small improvement projects flow while tactical urbanism is about identifying small improvement projects from which community growth flows.  Two good concepts with a small difference in perspective.)

None of the tactical urbanist projects noted above are in the North Bay, but the North Bay offers opportunities for tactical urbanism.  A couple of years back, I learned of two Petaluma businesses, aided and abetted by a Petaluma architect, who were going to install a parklet despite the absence of a City parklet policy.  (This was long before a group, with whom I’m working, began to develop a parklet policy for City consideration.)  I thought the idea was grand, offered to write about it when the time was right, and was disappointed when it faded away. 

I have no problem conceiving of other tactical urbanist projects that could make a difference in the North Bay.

Already having a full plate of longer-term goals, I won’t be taking the lead on any tactical urban projects, but will be happy to advise as needed.

So, if a decade or more of persistent involvement and advocacy to accomplish a single goal, albeit a major goal, isn’t consistent with your personality, perhaps tactical urbanism, with its lesser but still important targets, would in more keeping with your desires.

Either way, you shouldn’t sit back telling others what your city should look like in the future.  You need to be making brush strokes yourself, whether grand and time-consuming or short and incisive.  It’s up to you to make the future what you want it to be.

When I next write, it will be about the drought.  Some are ready to call it over and to lift all water use restrictions.  For at least two reasons, I disagree.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

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