Tactical urbanism: Citizen projects go mainstream, from DIY crosswalks to a 'pop-up 'hood'

  • Article by: ALLEN G. BREED , Associated Press
  • Updated: May 1, 2014 - 9:50 AM

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The city painted a crosswalk and installed tennis-ball green signs, but the cars just kept on zooming through. But rather than wave a white flag, Sarah Newstok grabbed an orange one instead.

The Memphis mother of three zip-tied some recycled plastic shrubbery pots to the signposts on either side of McLean Boulevard and filled them with brightly colored traffic flags. On each bucket is a laminated sign: "Use a flag to help you cross."

And voila! She'd committed an act of "tactical urbanism."

The trend, which started out as a guerrilla movement but has increasingly gone mainstream across America and globally, can involve something as simple as the corrugated plastic speed limit signs going up around New York City or as large as a "pop-up 'hood" of rehabbed shipping containers to demonstrate the viability of a worn-out Salt Lake City neighborhood.

The main criteria for an act of tactical urbanism are that it be simple, relatively inexpensive and quick, says urban planner Mike Lydon.

"Tactical urbanism is the use of short-term or temporary projects to test out or to demonstrate the possibility for long-term change," says Lydon, a principal with the New York City-based Street Plans Collaborative, who takes credit for coining the phrase several years ago.

Adds Newstok, who works for the group Livable Memphis: "We have to at some point take it upon ourselves to do the types of little projects to make our neighborhoods better, on our own. No one's going to do it for us."

Lydon, whose company has published two free online manuals and is in the process of publishing a book on the movement, notes that increasingly "tactical urbanism is being adopted and enabled by cities or developers or nonprofit organizations, and so more frequently it's becoming a sanctioned movement."

Many projects are about making cities friendlier. For instance, there's a blog — streetseats.org — dedicated to people who've installed benches and chairs around the country.

But making streets safer has also been a big motivator.

Two years ago, residents of Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood petitioned New York City's department of transportation to designate two "slow zones" there. The speed limit in New York City is 30 mph, unless otherwise noted.

After a lengthy selection process, the Fort Greene request was denied. But when a 9-year-old boy was struck and killed by an SUV that had jumped a curb, residents took matters into their own hands.

In mid-March, groups spread out across the city and installed corrugated plastic "20 is Plenty" signs — designed by the group rightofway.org — at 11 locations. Organizer Hilda Cohen's two young children wondered: Was it OK to break the rules?

"I think it sometimes takes the people to remind the government what they need to do," she says. "You know, this is not infrastructure. It is signage. I mean, we don't need to wait. We shouldn't have to wait."

Other projects are about attracting traffic to a neighborhood.

Last year in Salt Lake City's rundown warehouse district, the nonprofit Kentlands Initiative converted shipping containers into "micro-retail" spaces and arranged them in the middle of a wide, sparsely traveled street, dubbing this "Granary Row." The goal of this "pop-up 'hood" — complete with food trucks, a community garden and a performance stage — was to attract entrepreneurs, show they could make money there and encourage them to set up shop permanently.

All three of the startups that took part have since moved into permanent retail space, says Kentlands executive director James Alfandre. Granary Row is reopening May 23 on a vacant parking lot.

"The most important thing is that we become a thriving version of what we already are, and not something else," he says.

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