How Miami can benefit from giving “guerrilla tactics” a chance to thrive

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Anyone who considers themselves an urbanist can probably say that they’ve come across a form of Tactical Urbanism as they browse websites like CityLab, Next City, Streetsblog, or even Twitter. It’s the “low-cost, short-term, nimble” methodology for kick starting and advancing long-term projects that started as a guerrilla tactic for citizens to “take back their streets”, and has evolved into a sanctioned and sought after project delivery process that’s used all over the world.

Tactical Urbanism is not necessarily foreign to Miami-Dade County. The practice of delivering “pilot” projects has been used on recent occasions to test infrastructure, provide public benefits on a faster timeline than a capital process, and provide opportunities to support grassroots initiatives.

But these projects don’t have to disappear almost as quickly as they are installed. There are resources, both financial and social, that the county has at its disposal to get people out of their cars now, and start delivering robust bicycle, pedestrian, and transit access infrastructure.

One of those bundles of resources is the MDT Quick-Build Program, a collaboration between Street Plans, the nonprofit Green Mobility Network, and Miami-Dade County’s Department of Transportation and Public Works that, over a year ago, solicited and selected projects across the county that address challenges like pedestrian and bicycle safety and mobility, and wayfinding and transit access.

The entirely grant-funded Quick-Build Program provides the materials and technical assistance to help applicants get their projects installed quickly, because we all know we’re not climbing the country’s “safest place to walk and bike” lists at our current pace (you may recall we’re #48 on People for Bikes’ 2018 ranking of bicycle-friendly U.S. cities). These projects are then evaluated by the county, or respective municipality, for their performance, and are iterated upon to provide permanent infrastructure if they’re deemed a success.

The program has so far had some success, and via increasing collaboration with county and municipal staff, it continues to gain momentum. What it has revealed, however, is that the need to bridge the silos of local government that stifle urban innovation is more important than ever. Instead of permitting a project temporarily and hoping it just goes away, the local government needs to work with the community leaders to develop a more streamlined and flexible process. That way these types of projects can lead to results that are more satisfactory for each party, and could lead to real infrastructure that would stick around for longer and ultimately deliver safer streets and more inviting public spaces.

In the case of a recent project in October, Taste of Avenue 3, a multi-day activation on Northeast 3rd Avenue in Downtown, a disparate permitting process resulted in miscommunication inside multiple departments at both the city and county level. The project was overall a great success, especially for a group of community partners who worked together for the first time to execute the activation in six weeks. More than 450 people attended the event, more than $6,500 was raised for the project, and the Downtown community was buzzing when it was over.

And more than 90 percent of survey respondents said that the street installation (one that demonstrated a more pedestrian-oriented Northeast Third Avenue by creating painted sidewalk extensions in place of on-street parking lanes) made them feel safer. When asked what people could see themselves doing on the street if the installation were to remain, respondents expressed things like, “patronize the local businesses more” and “regularly dine and socialize on NE 3rd Avenue.”

But behind the scenes, the permitting execution was not reflective of one of the program’s most important outcomes: an engaged group of county and municipal transportation and public works staff members who have truly bought into both the process and the prioritization of these projects.

Rather than bolster the momentum of a community-led initiative, the local government hired a contractor to cover up the (originally permitted) asphalt art that was a part of the activation two months later, in what was no doubt a counterproductive use of resources. The art was intended to signify where future changes to the street could be made, support the new identity of the long-term Avenue 3 Miami initiative, and be the foundation for future installations and activations.   

What the program, and frankly our local transportation departments, need are:

  1. More flexible and innovative standards for the delivery of bicycle, pedestrian, and transit access projects. Remember, colorful paint doesn’t kill people, poor street design does.
  2. A consolidated and streamlined permitting process that would allow for faster delivery of these projects.  
  3. To come out and help build Quick-Build Program projects with the local project teams, if for no other reason than it’s fun and impactful.

These three things may not be accomplished right away, and that’s okay, but we can only hope that with a little bit more time and collaboration, we can play a role in that climb up the list of the country’s best places to walk and bike.