• Krista Nightengale

Interim Design / Tactical Urbanism: A New Civic Engagement Approach in Action

This article was originally published in the March 2015 issue of the Institute of Transportation Engineers Journal. Read the full issue here. 

As part of an ongoing ITE Journal series on Interim Design and Tactical Urbanism, this article explores three case studies with an emphasis on the partnerships and collaborations that can be developed through a new approach to civic engagement.

By Andrew Howard, AICP and Susan McLaughlin, AICP LEED AP

How many of us as transportation engineers and planners have started a complete street or public space project with a contentious public meeting? When is the last time you actually enjoyed the process and felt that productive input was provided and recognized in the final product?

Until the early 1970s, United States federal, state, and municipal agencies planned roadway construction with little input from the communities affected by the work. Later, emphasis was placed on trying to inform as many people as possible about public improvements with notices and public hearings. Recently, with the Internet making “experts” out of everyone, people have desired even more involvement, and designers have responded with interactive charrettes that allow participants to draw on maps and put stickers on priority elements to gauge community desires.

Planners and engineers have even produced fancy interactive websites to gather further comments, but public engagement still has been seen as a stumbling block. Recently at a National Association of City and Traffic Officials (NACTO) meeting, transportation officials from around the country conducted a roundtable on the barriers to urban street design. With all the funding shortages and battles over outdated design standards, community consensus still reigns as the number one barrier to progress on complete streets and public space design.

Why is this? Inherently most people are skeptical of change. You have been at that public meeting where one naysayer incites fear into the hearts of all who have gathered by shouting this will be “carmageddon!” Even though the traffic modeling says it will not turn out that way and the renderings look really pretty, sometimes these emotional voices win out, and what the designers are left with is a watered-down plan that com- promises best practices with the fears of the constituents. That is not to say that com- munity input isn’t valuable—but it should always be rooted in fact or experience. There must be a better way!

Posting land use ordinances that were being broken during the first Better Block experiment started a positive conversation with city officials in Dallas, TX, USA.

Posting land use ordinances that were being broken during the first Better Block experiment started a positive conversation with city officials in Dallas, TX, USA.

A few years ago, a group of friends, of which author Andrew Howard was a part, worked over a weekend to spiff up a blighted block of commercial buildings in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, TX, USA using an alternative approach. This first “Better Block” was an experiment to lure people out of their living rooms and into public life so that they would engage in a conversation about the kind of community they wanted to live in. The group of friends—regular people representing the perfect cross section of the city’s populace—took an auto-dominated street and added the first bicycle lanes in Dallas, café seating, and narrowed the street so it was safe for all. A patent lawyer in the group identified the city land use codes that were holding back public life from blooming, like restrictions of café seating, shade awnings, flowers in the right of way, and issues such as causing crowds on the sidewalk. Andrew, an urban planner, took up the city’s out- dated street design standards that reinforced automobile priority and demonstrated how complete streets could be integrated. The group’s solution was to approach the problem with fresh eyes and to expose the rules for exactly what they were. Together over a weekend, we pinned copies of the ordinances on walls and invited our city leaders and staff for a discussion. The result was dramatic. City officials took notice and started the long process of changing those ordinances that limit true public engagement. One million dollars in the city budget was redirected toward making the weekend improvements permanent. Even more amazing is what the short project has spurred in the individuals that took part in it.

The patent lawyer that pasted the ordinances on the walls around the Better Block is now a city councilmember. Another member from the group is on the board of the local economic development committee, and two others joined together to start a real business after their pop-up shop during the weekend was so loved. Countless others that participated or just saw the event are now civic champions and are taking on city bettering projects in many fields.

As this example shows, the concept of urban planning is not stale. It is not a process run by city staff and consultants. It is a culture. In extreme cases, practicing urban planning in this way may lead to quitting your job to pursue civic engagement full time, as was the case for Andrew, who went on to co-found the social-enterprise consulting firm Team Better Block as a result of his experience. At the very least, this concept will make your job as a transportation engineer and/or planner designer easier because the community will be directly showing you what they desire from the city, helping you translate that into a permanent solution.

This kind of conversation about the future of the city cannot take place in City Hall or a library meeting room. It must take place in the streets, and, as the inaugural Better Block showed, those streets must be for people. For too many places in America there is no such venue, and many places actually make having such a conversation impossible. That is why the challenge lies with us as transportation professionals and enthusiasts to pop one up and build a Better Block that kick starts the conversation of public life.

Cities across the country are inviting these spaces into the everyday fabric of neighborhoods to disrupt the status quo and highlight what needs improvement. These living labo- ratories are experimenting with what people want in the city and thus keep a constant conversation going about the future. In cities that have invited disruption, we are seeing a growing engaged citizenry that understands what good design is and why it matters, and will advocate for it forcefully.

Team Better Block works with cities, developers, and stakeholders to create quick, inexpensive, high-impact changes that improve and revitalize underused properties and highlight the potential for creating great Complete Streets. This map shows the locations of their projects across the United States and Canada.

Team Better Block works with cities, developers, and stakeholders to create quick, inexpensive, high-impact changes that improve and revitalize underused properties and highlight the potential for creating great Complete Streets. This map shows the locations of their projects across the United States and Canada.

Better Block is part of an emerging and somewhat disruptive movement in urban and transportation planning. Like any new movement, it is going by multiple names. Broadly it has been coined tactical urbanism by urban planner Mike Lydon, who offers this definition: Tactical Urbanism is a city, organizational, and/or citizen-led approach to neighborhood building using short-term, low-cost, and scalable interventions intended to catalyze long-term change.

Parallel to the grassroots efforts, professionals have begun to adopt the ideals of tactical urbanism. The National Association of City and Traffic Officials (NACTO) implemented a set of Interim Design Strategies defined in the following: With limited funding streams, complex approval and regulatory processes, and lengthy construction timetables, cities are often challenged to deliver the results that communities demand as quickly as they would like. Interim design strategies are a set of tools and tactics that cities can use to improve their roadways and public spaces in the near-term.

By either definition, what this means for engineers and planners is a fresh approach to the project delivery process. Over the past five years these approaches to building a culture for street and public space changes have been applied in three distinct fashions:

1. Direct Citizen Action (Dallas, TX, USA) One of the amazing freedoms in America is our right to assemble. Starting with the first Better Block in Dallas up to the most recent one in Tampa, FL, USA, an estimated 80 cities across the United States have used local block party permits to demonstrate street improvements, test public space improve- ments, and stretch the zoning and building codes to prove that cities can be better today. By using the standard approval and review process found in all local block party permits, citizens do not tax already-burdened city employees with extra work. Yet, it still seems daring and fun to change the street and try out ideas that would never make it off the planning or design table. This approach is often used to raise awareness of local issues that are stalemated and garner momentum for change. An example is the first Better Block project in Dallas, Texas.

2. Part of a Planning Process (Norfolk, VA, USA) In cities that have over-planned, people often have “rendering fatigue” and “analysis paralysis.” Jason Roberts, who co-founded Team Better Block with Andrew, explained that their firm was founded in response to this “rendering fatigue,” in cases where com- munity enthusiasm has waned during a long planning process. In these situations the public is often only represented by the “frequent fliers”—the folks that are always at the public meetings. Municipalities in need have looked toward Better Block type projects with the aim of bringing in a younger more diverse group of constituents to the planning process. The approach also frees designers and planners to think about short-term, low- cost actions rather than long-term, high-cost ideas that could change dramatically given local market dynamics.

In April 2013, the City of Norfolk, VA, USA hosted the Dallas-based consultants Team Better Block to organize a“rapid place-making” event on Granby Street in the city’s proposed downtown Arts District, the first of four planned projects in the city. The efforts used temporary collaborative place-making to coalesce the community and change citizens’ and City officials’ sense of “what’s possible.” During the weekend-long event, residents created temporary spaces, piloted small busi- nesses, and forged important connections. The weekend also led to the city’s adoption of permanent zoning changes. In the year and a half since this Better Block project, more than 2 million dollars in land transactions and improvements have occurred, a complete street plan has been completed, five new businesses have launched, and a public space has been completed.

The Better Block pop-up public plaza built by residents in Norfolk, VA, USA has now been made permanent.

The Better Block pop-up public plaza built by residents in Norfolk, VA, USA has now been made permanent.

Jason Roberts says,“We [founded] Better Block as a 30 day vision, not a five year vision.” He believes that good place-making aims to create “a highly connected community or tribe.” The City of Norfolk sought out Team Better Block because past planning efforts had resulted in the same crowd of naysayers attending public meetings, and they really wanted young people involved in city building. Assistant City Manager Ron Williams made the decision to try a new approach.

The Better Block approach began with a pre- liminary site walk with community members. The second project walk drew approximately 50 people, followed by a series of community meetings with the City and a self-selecting core group leading up to the implementation event. The April Better Block event focused on transforming downtown’s Granby Street into the commercial spine of a new Arts District. The weekend of implementation drew more than 130 volunteers, including, parents, artists, DIYers, architects, cycle advocates, and Norfolkians from all walks of life who joined together to create three pop-up shops, a Dutch bicycle intersection, a giant public plaza, 80 feet of parklets, and count- less amazing pieces of art.

Better Block efforts encourage community members to physically make things and place them in their shared environment. A low budget for interventions is a hallmark of Better Block projects, and according to its founders, one of its major strengths. Tools, materials, and street furniture are borrowed, donated, or improvised. This borrowing builds ownership and trust within the community. Many times we want to skip this part of the process and buy things or hire people to do it, but if you do authenticity is lacking. In-kind donations in the form of art, landscaping, and construc- tion materials are solicited from residents, local businesses, and organizations. What little actual funding is required, including fees for the consultants, usually comes from a mix of sources. In Norfolk the effort was largely City- funded, although most recently the National Association of Realtors, John and James L. Knight Foundation, and People for Bikes have been major sponsors.

The Better Block model also tests small businesses on a temporary basis—in Norfolk, these pop up businesses ranged from a maker space to a beer garden. This strategy gives would-be entrepreneurs a low-commitment way to test business models while providing the greater community with a vision of what the block would be like with commercial activity. Team Better Block calls it speed dating for entrepreneurs, investors, and the city, to get to know each other, try things out, and— hopefully—fall in love with it.

After the conclusion of the weekend, Team Better Block provided the client with a report including metrics and an implementation guide for moving forward. Following the Granby Street event, resistance to land use and zoning changes subsided and the City Council unanimously approved additional uses that would encourage a viable Arts District, includ- ing art studios, breweries, flea markets, farmers markets, used merchandise stores, and com- mercial recreation centers. Frank Duke, Norfolk City Planner, says, “The first Better Block awak- ened the City officials and previously hesitant neighborhoods on the market potential for an Arts District in this downtown area.”Within several weeks food trucks were authorized, and design consultants working with the City developed a streetscape plan and began feasibility studies to examine narrowing some driving lanes to provide more on-street parking and wider sidewalks. The event also resulted in a $1.1 million sale of a long-listed building in the district as well as the opening of five new businesses that had been piloted during the event. On the softer side, lasting friendships and open lines of communication were forged. Six months after the event, small business owners marveled at the changes in the area, such as seeing a runner jogging alone on the street past dark, which as one merchant stated, “you never would have seen” several months ago. Norfolk has now hosted two additional Better Block projects in other budding districts with similar results.

As shown in this picture of Team Better Block in Norfolk, VA, USA, citizens don’t just participate in the planning process, they help build it.

As shown in this picture of Team Better Block in Norfolk, VA, USA, citizens don’t just participate in the planning process, they help build it.

3. Part of a Design Process (Seattle, WA, USA) Road diets, street closures, new public spaces—new anything—is often questioned in established areas. Engineers and planners spend countless hours modeling, debating, and second guessing community assumptions about how improvements will be