Neighborhoods First: Tactical Urbanism

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Earlier this year I was having dinner with a good friend of mine, someone very established and highly influential in the conversation taking place on the future of our cities. As I talked about my passion for the chaotic but smart, bottom up, neighborhood initiatives, my friend looked at me and said,

“Please tell me you’re not talking about chair bombing and that guerrilla stuff.”

I blushed a little because, of course, I was. This conversation confirmed for me that I had a lot of work to do. Even someone sympathetic was having a hard time buying the notion that a revolution could start by planting some flowers, painting a crosswalk or – yes – setting out a chair made of pallet wood. I could see it so clearly in my mind but I could not yet explain it.

Monday we released the Neighborhoods First report, which is a bridge between Tactical Urbanism (one of the formal names for these small neighborhood interventions) and the standard project development process. The report outlines eight neighborhood investment projects, all which are the result of knowledge gained through Tactical Urbanism efforts over the past six months.

To give an example of how we used Tactical Urbanism to learn from the neighborhood, we conducted a very rudimentary (but valid) speed study. The excessive speed of traffic through the neighborhood was one of the problems we observed and heard repeatedly from residents. We picked a two hour window on a Thursday morning and, using a standard radar gun that one would use to clock a fastball (you can get one of these from your local baseball enthusiast or buy one – they are not real expensive), we recorded the speed of all the passing vehicles.

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One week later, we went out and used temporary chalk to stripe two parking lanes and two bike lanes on the street (the original striping had long faded away) and then, during that same two hour window, recorded the speed of all the passing vehicles. Our hypothesis – that narrower driving lanes would reduce the speed of traffic – was confirmed by our results. It was simply a bonus when neighborhood residents showed up and started using the bike lanes.

We also used Tactical Urbanism to determine where other neighborhood needs are being ignored. Mill Avenue is a major thoroughfare that bisects our study neighborhood. We spent a lot of time out on the street but didn’t see a lot of pedestrians crossing Mill. For a cost of $78, we installed some orange flags for people to use to raise their profile as they cross the dangerous street. The flags are constantly being moved yet have not been stolen after five months and we’ve received testimonials from people who say they use them. Again, we confirmed our hypothesis; people are crossing Mill Avenue and they don’t feel safe doing it.

The insights produced from low cost experimentation like this are within every city’s – or neighborhood group’s – grasp. When we take the time and effort to watch and discern how people go about their daily business in their neighborhoods, and when we introduce temporary experiments to see how people react, we’re using a time tested approach for improving complex systems: the scientific method.

Tactical Urbanism is not a cute fad. It is the foundation for how every city needs to be developing projects. It is the way we are going to build strong towns.

A special thanks to our partners, Mike Lydon of Street Plans Collaborative and the team of Jason Roberts and Andrew Howard at The Better Block. We’re innovating the Sandbox approach together. Neighborhoods First is part of that process.

(Top photo by LA DOT People St)

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