How thinking small can change a city

It was 2008. Municipal budgets were shrinking as the recession took its toll, but people were moving back to cities in increasing numbers. Improvements were needed more than ever, and the funds just weren’t there.

So people started thinking smaller.

That year the city of New York dusted off a decades-old plan to permanently close down Broadway Avenue around Times Square to cars. On Memorial Day weekend, temporary traffic bollards, tables, and chairs sprung up, and for a couple of days the harried area became a pedestrian-only spot, a tiny haven from traffic in the heart of the city.

Miami-based architect and urban planner Tony Garcia was in town that weekend and the pop-up project caught his attention. He’d been working as an architect for 10 years by then, writing the Transit Miami blog on the side, and a slew of his projects – as well as Miami-Dade County’s ambitious rail project – had been scrapped or put on indefinite hold, one after the other, because they were too big, too grand.

The Times Square experiment got him thinking about downsizing ambitious urban design plans to get them off the ground. He asked himself, “How can we start to make small scale changes now with a little bit of money and not worry about the huge megascale projects, the huge silver bullet projects?”

“I wanted to be able to do something in the world and have it actually be built,” said Garcia, now a principal at Street Plans Collaborative, an urban planning firm. “It was at the time we realized we wouldn’t get that huge rail design we so desperately needed.”

Garcia and his colleague Mike Lydon got to thinking about quick, low-cost, often short term changes that could skip much of the bureaucracy that confronts bigger urban projects. They were not the first to think this way, but they’re pretty well acknowledged as the ones who gave the concept a name – “tactical urbanism.” They penned four open-source guides and a book on the concept, helping to spread the idea across the world.

Tactical urbanism has a few defining characteristics. It’s cheap, as far as urban planning projects go. It isn’t meant to be permanent. And while ideas often begin with the community, they build on plans already in place (although often never carried out).

You don’t need big bucks developers or huge capital outlays from the government to get them off the ground. The funds required for these projects are small enough that they can be covered by foundations – here in Miami, many of these projects get money from the Miami Foundation, through programs like the Public Space Challenge – crowd-sourcing, or minor outlays from corporations.

In Dallas, local artists, musicians, and small business owners took over vacant storefronts for a day, while cafes took over sidewalk space with food carts to form a temporary “better block.” In New York, locals signed petitions to close their streets to traffic for a day to make a “playstreet” for their kids. These are just two of the many examples outlined in their books.

Our backyard has examples too, some more temporary than others: The waypoints on the nascent Ludlam Trail, prompting families to bike to the park instead of piling in the car. Short-term lights on streets and in parks to encourage safe nighttime use, leading to after-dark basketball leagues. The benches on Brickell Bay Drive, prompting nearby residents to pause and admire the Bay.

All of these are relatively small improvements that can prompt big changes in the way locals use spaces. Foot traffic helps create momentum and possibly funding interest down the road for bigger changes.

Some projects can be done with materials you get from the hardware store. In Raleigh, N.C., graduate student Matt Tomasulo was tired of hearing from locals that everything in the compact downtown was “too far” to walk.

So he made plastic signs detailing the time it took to move between key points in the city and attached them to existing street signs. For a couple of weeks, they were a hit.

But the city was unimpressed with his guerilla urban planning, which technically violated local ordinances, and took the temporary signs down. The outcry was so great that the city set up a system for people to formally request the signs in their neighborhood and put them back up.

That’s exactly the outcome that tactical urbanists hope for, Garcia said – for grassroots projects to prompt action at the municipal government level. Tomasulo’s project now has pilots across the country, including here on our Ludlam Trail.

The Ludlam Trail connects five schools, four parks, and two transit hubs, and the signs detail the time it takes to bike between the waypoint signs on what will eventually became the path of the trail. The hope is to get people out on the trail before it’s finalized, to push it forward and ensure it doesn’t lose steam like so many other urban design projects do, buried in feasibility and usability studies that take years to execute and analyze.

“We need this stuff now, we don’t need to wait 10 or 15 years,” Garcia said. “We’ll be 50 or 60 years later for these projects to happen if we wait on the conventional paradigm.”

Got your own idea? The Miami Foundation’s 2016 Public Space Challenge is now open.