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Lydon, Roberts on the future of Tactical Urbanism

Marc Lefkowitz  |  05/31/13 @ 4:00pm  |  Posted in Vibrant cities, Transportation choices

“The project delivery process in cities is fundamentally broken,” says Tactical Urbanism founder Mike Lydon.

Urban tactician<br />Jason Roberts sparked a national movement with the first Better Block pop up in Dallas. Riding bike share at Congress for New Urbanism in Salt Lake City.

Since 2010, Lydon and a corps of young planners at The Streets Plan Collaborative have been going into cities and delivering sometimes guerilla responses to the needs of people living with slow moving bureaucracies. He and advocates like Jason Roberts, the founder of Better Blocks, are meeting with people to find out what they want.

“It’s about getting it right for now,” says Lydon. “It combats analysis paralysis.”

No need is too big or too small. Want to turn Times Square in to a giant outdoor cafe? Has your crosswalk faded to black? Tactical Urbanists believe you should grab some paint and a brush or set up some folding lawn chairs with your friends in the middle of the street. As you might expect, not everyone appreciates their quick build, unsanctioned solutions.

Tactical Urbanists, because of their reputation, are making allies at Congress for New Urbanism. Their presence, and CNU co-founder Andres Duany’s welcome at this year’s CNU conference in Salt Lake City, would suggest an endorsement of their work. Lydon and his acolytes huddled at CNU with a few dozen city planners to build alliances within government. They explained that some cities, initially repulsed and defensive, are coming around to their ideas.

Lydon, 31, has published two volumes of Tactical Urbanism, with case studies of cities like Hamilton, in Ontario, Canada where residents fed up with faded off crosswalks and speeding cars worked with Lydon to create a vision for a public promenade and calm streets. His firm employs the traditional tools of the trade like charrettes, but it also sees value in starting a big brouhaha in the media. When their resident workshop ended with an unsanctioned crosswalk, the city went on the offensive and said they would prosecute anyone who engaged in more hand-painted street markings. In the span of a month, though, the campaign gained wide support through non-violent protests -- families pushed shopping carts across intersections with images of new and improved crosswalks and eventually swayed public opinion until the city acquiesced.

“To me, there’s no better way to get things done,” Lydon said.

Their premise now is that government can become an actor that supports swift action and projects of Tactical Urbanism. City as Tactical Urbanist was pitched to New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg who dug in to his deep pockets to fund five Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Teams around the country. As head of Memphis’ team, Tom Pacello and his staff of seven delivered a pop up block that became so popular it led to the city installing its first two-way cycle track.

“We couldn’t get the rents to pencil out to redevelop downtown spaces,” Pacello explains. “So, we got the city to agree to temporary use occupancy permits for six months so that these pop up retail shops could go in. We want to occupy the space and then come up with a plan to bring them up to code.”

Thirty three businesses applied for the temporary retail space, he adds.

“What started as a project that raised $20,000 has leveraged $15 million in new investment,” Pacello says.

For Lydon, the path to reform includes getting hired, as they have by cities like Raleigh, NC to reform the “project delivery system” from within. Sometimes that means rewriting zoning to allow for temporary use of vacant storefronts, or policy that streamlines more pop up complete streets.

“Some (zoning) hasn’t been changed since the 1950s. That would be like watching the same TV shows from the 50s. I don’t want to see this as just painting in crosswalks at 3 a.m. We want to see cities evolve, and attract private equity. Because what you really want is 12 new floors of redevelopment.”

When he started Better Blocks in Dallas, Jason Roberts also found it quicker and easier to say sorry later than ask for permission. In 2010, Roberts sparked a movement that has spread nationwide with one of the first documented pop up blocks. Today, he says, he’s lost count of how many pop up blocks are being done (Cleveland was an early participant with Pop UP Pearl in 2011, and Pop Up Rockwell in 2012). Roberts took an idea, built it with a handful of friends in to his day job - promoting Better Blocks across the U.S.

“My idea when I started Better Blocks was to get more businesses in there, and I saw bike lanes and pop up shops as a way of getting them to come,” Roberts says. “As a result, we built a popular movement. The city in the face of that said, ‘sure, we can do this.’ So, now we’re seeing zoning and building codes updated to allow for more temporary use. But sometimes, when you can’t get the city’s attention, you have to go out there with your paint.”

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David Beach
4 years ago

I've always hated how Cleveland Magazine's annual Rating the Suburbs issue has celebrated the flight of the wealthy to exclusive suburban enclaves. Back in 1995, I wrote to the magazine:

Your recent feature on Rating the Suburbs raises some important questions about we value as a region. Here are a few suggestions for improvements:

Give points for density. Population density should be seen as a positive attribute, not a negative one. Sprawling, low-density suburbs force people to live in their cars, use more energy and produce more air pollution. Compact, walkable communities like Lakewood and Cleveland Heights offer a higher quality of life in many respects. And they are more environmentally sustainable.

Give points for racial and economic diversity. We should honor suburbs that are struggling with the responsibilities of fair housing and poverty. Also give points for affordable housing. Instead of recognizing suburbs that maintain high housing prices through exclusionary zoning, we should recognize suburbs that offer a range of housing prices...

Electric Avenue
4 years ago

All of this matters not...because Cleveland Magazine just came out with its "Rating the Suburbs" issue! Who knew that low taxes is one of the three top considerations in determining quality of life?!?

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