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Think small: How Tactical Urbanism plans to help cities

Marc Lefkowitz  |  04/30/15 @ 12:00am  |  Posted in Vibrant cities

Jason Roberts is standing before a seated assembly in a vacant storefront in the hipster enclave of Deep Ellum, Dallas a few miles from Oak Cliff where he first acted on an idea to reverse decades of decline on a derelict city block. Roberts thinks he’s cracked the code on what unloved city streets need; if not to change the larger market dynamics that led to urban decline, then to make those living with it feel better, somehow, more empowered.

<br />One of the first Better Block pop ups in Oak Cliff, Dallas from 2010.

Co-leading a session on Tactical Urbanism with Mike Lydon who literally wrote the now-fourth volume on the topic, in a vacant storefront, Roberts distilled the lessons from his experience bootstrapping a pop up shop / street reclamation movement.

“Selfishly, this is all in the service of making my own block better,” he said. “Making my kids want to stay.”

Roberts’ Better Blocks has launched a thousand imitations. And that’s the idea, he says. He published the results of his many rapid prototypes of storefront-to-sidewalk space into this handy guide. But the magic is harder to distill without his deftness for organizing and directing his army of followers. He now consults, and recently travelled to Akron to work on a Better Block intervention in the North Hill neighborhood.

Later, as we hammer and saw shipping palettes and paint them in bright colors to lend them a second life as benches in a pop up block project that one of the local groups is organizing, Roberts says that he’s learning from the Akron project. Its major institutional support—the buy in from the Knight Foundation, the city, and AMATS, the transportation agency—means the usual not-asking-for permission mode of operation is reversed.

“It opens up a bunch of doors,” he notes. “We have city staff, for example, saying ‘we’ll paint the temporary bike lane.’ We can focus on the policy side, like, how do we make a parking lot not a parking lot. But a park.”

The key to Better Blocks, says Roberts, are picking the right kind of sights. He likes old streetcar suburbs where the train stops have the right type of building, a small scale—like 200 feet of retail—people who can bring a mix of skills, energy and permission from at least one property owner or politician. So, in his estimation, a place like downtown Garfield Heights or Noble Road in Cleveland Heights or a stretch of Lorain Avenue in Ohio City might have the physical set up. Can the actors be brought together who could dumpster dive a theater set and aren’t afraid to test new ideas in washable paint and movable planters before committing to concrete?

Lydon’s latest book collects the work of Tactical Urbanist around the world. He describes their goal of “having cities function and be more nimble.” Cities like Memphis whose mayor has been inspired by the next generation (plus resources like the Green Lanes Project) to launch a program called MemFix with a goal of doing Better Blocks—like Critical Mass—every month. Lydon tells of how looking critically at place and challenging the bias that government can’t deliver inspired entrepreneurship in Memphis. Sometimes the simplest idea can unleash a movement, like when hundreds of normal people unfolded lawn chairs in Times Square and started the ball rolling to make it a car-free zone.

“Something like that can express all the frustration and hope people have for their city.”

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Rik Adamski
6 years ago

Hi, Marc. Thanks for your response.

I totally understand that you did not mean to create confusion. If the reaction might appear disproportionate to your article, it's only because it happens to hit a nerve among many of us in the local Dallas urbanist community.

The project was called Crowdus Park. It was a four-day popup plaza, created to complement the simultaneous annual Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) conference in Downtown Dallas. It was a demonstration project done in response to the community's long-standing desire to create more engaging public space by converting several blocks of Crowdus Street to pedestrian (or possibly shared pedestrian/motorist) space. It also featured four days of free entertainment, including two movie screenings, live music, circus performers and an outdoor dance party.

I'm the head of the CNU Committee that started it, and my firm ASH+LIME Strategies took the "lead" on the project. However, it would have been impossible without the hard work of many companies and individuals. Two highly-respected landscape architecture/architecture firms (TBG and Callison) donated substantial time to public outreach, design and construction of the park. The community made a particularly generous donation (in the form of the Deep Ellum Foundation), and we received many other large and small contributions from a variety of sources. We also had at least 100 volunteers, various loans of plants and furniture, speakers who donated their time for our fundraiser, etc. Pulling off anything of this scale truly requires a group effort.

People can learn more about it (and see videos and images) at the Crowdus Park Facebook event page. We also hired a videographer to make a very short film about it; we'll announce that in a month or so.

Michael F
6 years ago

For more information about the Crowdus Pop-Up Park effort visit the front page of The Architect's Newspaper.

6 years ago

Apologies for any confusion including the images of the Crowdus Park pop up project has caused. It was not intended to sow confusion, but to point out that imitation in this case (and mentioned above) is the sincerest form of flattery. It was clear talking to Jason that the project support we were giving was to another group with similarly aligned goals to the Better Block Team. It was really a great looking project. I hope it went well. If you can, please provide the project name, the group that organized it and any relevant information about your goals and vision, and I'll make sure to add a correction to the post.

6 years ago

This article is causing some problems in the local community. You've taken photos of a project people worked very hard on and attributed their work to someone else. You don't even mention the actual project, and refer to its creators only as "imitators".
It's insulting to them and even reflects poorly on Jason thru some eyes. I'm sure it's not what was intended, but the work is lazy and now causing rifts.
This is no good. Please consider correcting either the photos or the text.

brandon castillo
6 years ago

Marc, if you're writing a piece about Jason, then please feature pictures of Jason's work. If you're using pictures of a public space demonstration project that an altogether different group of people worked on, I would ask that you also write about them as well. We are proud of Jason and everything he's accomplished, but we would appreciate that you give credit where it's due. A little bit of research into #CrowdusPark could help you in doing that.

6 years ago

I take offense to this blog as one of the "imitators" who was responsible for organizing the pop-up park across the street, which Jason had nothing to do with. Yes, while I was initially inspires by his Ted talk to get more involved in my community, I lost respect for him after finding out he often takes credit for work that other people do. All my inspiration from this project were gleaned from other tactical projects that were not associated with Jason. the team I worked with on this project put our heart into creating Crowdus Park. It is not fair to any of us who worked on the park to have picture of our work linked to an interview with someone who was not involved in the project without giving due credit.

Arturo Torres.
6 years ago

Not everyone that is doing the repair and designs when it comes to tactical urbanism is inspired by Jason Roberts. This is a prjoect that he did not do anything at all with our park. Callison and TBG designed the park. Jason Roberts did not. Ash+lime helped get this together. Jason Roberts did not. Please remove the images of our park. He should not get credit for something he did not do and it's not the first time this has happened.

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