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Sometimes Quick and Dirty Urban Upgrades Are the Best Urban Upgrades

The mastermind of “tactical urbanism” – think cheap, temporary improvements like painting over a parking lot to create a cool plaza – says sometimes the best way to improve a city is by making tangible and incremental upgrades, not thinking 30 years into the future.

It just got its name a few years ago, but there’s nothing about tactical urbanism that’s totally new.

The idea is simple: cheap, small, often temporary improvements to urban environments that make certain areas more lively, with little risk and potentially big reward.

That might mean a private citizen illegally paints a crosswalk in front of her home to slow down traffic. It might mean a city turns a parking lot in the center of its crown jewel park into an inviting plaza by repainting it and adding trees, chairs, tables and umbrellas.

It’s a way of thinking, more than anything, said Mike Lydon, who wrote the first guidebook on the concept three years ago and now travels the world implementing projects with an impact bigger than their physical size.

Friday’s PARK(ing) Day, where residents around the world turn literal parking spaces into temporary mini-parks, is one expression of it, and many San Diego organizations are expected to participate. The new pocket park downtown is another, as is the nearby beer garden/dog park/event space opening soon.

And most notably, the new low-cost, easy-to-implement Plaza de Panama in Balboa Park, which replaced an expensive and illegal behemoth project with the same objectives.

Earlier this year, Lydon assisted the now-defunct Civic Innovation Lab to turn a little-used parking lot at the Linda Vista library into a pedestrian plaza that now host food trucks and holds regular events like film nights and Tai Chi classes.

Lydon is in Carlsbad this week, in hopes of eventually turning a pop-up plaza there into a bigger plan to remake the Carlsbad Village area. We talked about why tactical urbanism has taken hold and is embraced by residents who’d be scared off by bigger, more expensive or more permanent changes to their communities.

You wrote the first guidebook to tactical urbanism three years ago, but how much time do you still spend defining the term, or basically establishing the premise?

That depends who we’re speaking to. With other like-minded urbanists who know what it is, we spend a lot of time redefining what it is, so we’re clear with each other. We talk about how it is different from place-making or guerrilla urbanism or all these other terms people use.

For laypeople, we don’t always even use the term at all. We talk about pilot projects, that we’re testing out ideas, trying to find out how to use certain spaces. We try to use less jargon for the public. I’m actually surprised the term has stuck. I’m not surprised by the ideas behind it sticking.

It is the sort of jargon-y term that’s easy to criticize just by raising the inflection in your voice when you say it. How often do you deal with pushback from people who find it silly, basically?

Not that often, really. It does come up from academic critic circles. But with the projects themselves we really don’t deal with criticism much at all. Those have been successful. People will criticize our coining another phrase, whether that’s a worthwhile exercise. People are critical of some of the branding of the term. But no, we don’t get a lot of pushback, beyond the fact that it’s a jargon term. But what matters most are working with communities and regular people. Doing consulting work with communities, that’s exciting, talking to them about how they can not spend huge sums of money to move ideas forward and improve their communities. That’s the audience I care about.

In San Diego and elsewhere neighborhoods often have a strong reaction against new projects. Does the temporary and inexpensive nature of some of these things have any effect on that?

It sets a lot of people at ease. So much of these projects’ success comes down to communication, and setting clear expectations around the intent of the project. If you’re genuine, you say we’re trying this out for six months and we’ll see how it works at solving this specific problem. And people can come around to that idea.

And of course projects aren’t six-story or even three-story buildings. So they’re less controversial because they aren’t that big. We do run into some concerns around how the space will be used — you have a few in the project downtown, the vacant lot with shipping containers that’ll include a beer garden. There’s concern about noise, cleaning up, beer, alcohol, but that comes with anything.

So PARK(ing) Day is Friday. How much has an easily noticeable, easy-to-participate event like that helped to spread the concept?

It’s engaged communities all over the world. A lot of people think it’s cliché. They say, “Oh, PARK(ing) Day, blah blah blah,” which I think shows how jaded we are as a society. If you get down to it and look at it with a clear lens, you’d say, ‘This is great, people do creative and inexpensive things together across globe.’ I don’t know anything else that’s urbanist-oriented, public space-oriented and accessible to such a wide variety of people. The circle where people talk about cities and think about this stuff extensively is an echo chamber, and we forget that 99.9 percent of people don’t think about this stuff all the time. For them, to see something that’s whimsical and fun in their city, this is great. I still go to places that do it for the first time, and people like it and talk about how fun it is, and that anchors me in reality that this is actually new stuff for a lot of people.

When I heard you speak recently, one thing I found interesting was the idea of existing on a spectrum, where it could include very small, DIY, unsanctioned projects by individuals, or relatively large projects by a city that are celebrated with a ribbon-cutting and many areas in between. Do you run into people who struggle with grasping an idea that can be applied to some really different projects?

All the time. That’s the thing that’s challenging.

Because of its range, it’s so fluid that people have a hard time nailing it down. There are guerilla neighborhood activists who can tactically make a project, but a city itself can think tactically to deliver a project as well. It isn’t who or where they’re acting, it’s how they’re thinking. A city operates fundamentally at a different scale. So projects tend to be more formal, like you have in Balboa Park. But it solves a problem, and it’s an example of tactical thinking. It’s better than a parking lot, and its testing ideas of a public space, and it acts as a placeholder. Whether that placeholder is there for one year or 10 years isn’t the concern. It’s that it’s a solution, and it’s compared to an initial plan that cost many millions of dollars, and it bust through a sense of gridlock and got something done.

So on Twitter the other day, you posted a photo of Harbor Drive — one of San Diego’s many very wide streets with fast-moving traffic in a pretty urban area — and said it could really use a road diet. Then a few hours later, you posted a photo of a street in Carlsbad and said it was quietly one of the best cities in the country in livable streets. What is Carlsbad doing with its streets that San Diego isn’t?

I think what you’re seeing in Carlsbad right now is incremental changes in the village square area. I realize this isn’t happening here east of I-5. That’s a point of clarification. But we’re in the village area, the area we’re working on. I’ve walked around and I see what’s happening. San Diego is doing some of it too. And I think what it is, is that in a small area you can see a lot of things that are being tried close together. Bike corrals on roads in a lot of locations. A bike lane network that’s emerging that if we’re successful with our project will be ramped up even further. Shutting down State Street once a week. A parking lot turned into a plaza across from the train station. Thought it was great the city is behind that, that it was willing to give up a parking lot to test it out. Pedestrian scramble in intersections, where you can cross diagonally; there’s some debate among urbanists if that’s a good thing good, but it shows they’re thinking of pedestrians. There’s a plaza created with shipping containers, and small-scale gardening. People might not think of this as a super progressive place, but they have a lot of things on the ground that work really well, and they’re thinking now about bigger projects, like some serious road diets, to return those spaces to the public realm.

How much of the objective of tactical urbanism is about taking a wasted space and making it better and creating something for the community as an end of itself, versus catalyzing an area and turning it into a place that’s ready for larger-scale developments?

It’s both. I think it starts with improving the space. I’m a planner, and I think long term. I always think long term and how we get there. I think what we’ve learned is that starting with something incremental and small is how you get there. It’s easy to draw pictures and talk about what something will look like 30 years out. It’s harder to start with something small and get to five years down the line. It requires people who control the process to say, “Let’s start with a small thing and see what works well and learn from that.” I think the thing that has failed planning is, we’ve been deputized to think long term, and not thought of getting the ball rolling and making changes happen quickly. And that’s what is exciting, thinking in iterations and letting things fail, and succeed and improve and get so you can run with it.

A good example is a project we did in Hamilton (Canada). We did five small projects, and we didn’t know if any of them would stick. And one truly did, which led to a major policy change at the city level, and that led to a lot of change on the ground in a short time. It was about seeing what works.

It’s interesting that this idea is taking hold not just in big, liberal cities like San Francisco, where it was apparently born, but in smaller, walkable towns, even in rural areas that are separated from big cities.

It’s usually those kinds of places that can get the most out of it, because they can act most nimbly. You might know the public works director, because you see him when you get coffee, so you can pitch him your idea, and it starts. There is less process and bureaucracy in a small town. And they’re gravitating to this because this is the only thing they can afford anyway. If you come in there with a $100 million, 30-year plan full of pictures, the chance of that idea coming to fruition is actually really small. It’s better to think about doing a lot of incremental stuff that adds up over time.

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