From Tactical to Permanent - A Memphis Success Story

Semi-permanent bike lanes, bump outs and street art in Memphis. (Photo by Daniel Ashworth.)

Semi-permanent bike lanes, bump outs and street art in Memphis. (Photo by Daniel Ashworth.)

At our recent Strong Towns Summit in Tulsa, OK, I heard Chuck Marohn praise—on several occasions—the ingenuity and creativity of the tactical urbanism projects going on in Memphis, TN. These include temporary bike lanes, pop-up stores, sidewalk seating and more. Also at the Summit, we had the privilege of hearing from Jason Roberts, co-founder of Better Block, which helped inspire and pilot this work in Memphis. (Watch his presentation here.) So we were excited to see a recent article from People for Bikes reporting on the incremental success of these projects, led by the group MEMfix, many of which are now becoming more permanent, long-term design changes. 

MEMfix hosts community events to help activate streets, fill vacant storefronts and revitalize neighborhoods. They base their work on three key principles:

  1. MEMFix events must be community driven.
  2. MEMFix events reflect the strengths and needs of each neighborhood.
  3. MEMFix events are:
  • Focused on bringing attention to or deliberately generating neighborhood change (not just a block party);
  • Building social capital;
  • Low risk and low cost.

Those should sound pretty familiar to Strong Towns members. MEMfix's community events are clearly making an impact and inspiring more permanent change. Michael Anderson writes in People for Bikes:

It's taken a few years, but Memphians' hands-on experimentation with their streets is starting to pay off in permanent improvements.

This week, workers are putting finishing touches on a round of changes to Memphis streets called "interim design."

That phrase is a reference to the incremental progression of MEMfix's projects from temporary demonstration and pilot projects into "interim designs." The graphic below, created by People for Bikes and informed by the Tactical Urbanism guide, illustrates this concept of different phases to any design project, and has wide applicability for any community that wants to change the design of its public spaces and streets.

Graphic from People for Bikes'  "Quick Builds for Better Streets" guide

Graphic from People for Bikes' "Quick Builds for Better Streets" guide

Rather than simply putting up a temporary tactical design change—say, a curb bump-out created with cones at a key intersection—and then seeing its success and pushing the local government to install a permanent concrete bump-out immediately, the "spectrum of change" has a few more steps and options. First, you might put together a temporary demonstration project with simple removable items like folding chairs, cones, and painters tape that takes place over a single day or weekend. If that went well, you could try it for a longer amount of time in the pilot phase. If that continued to be successful, you could then move onto a semi-permanent, "interim design." 

In the case of MEMFix, that interim design entails "epoxy gravel, ceramic traffic buttons as lane markers, large planters to set off pedestrian space and shorten the crosswalks, benches, trash cans, bicycle racks and a public bike fix-it station on the corner." Daniel Ashworth, a landscape architect for Alta Planning and Design who worked on the project in Memphis is quoted in the People for Bikes article as saying, "These improvements will probably last about five to eight years, and hopefully by that time the city will have decided to make some of them permanent by moving the curbs."

This five to eight year lifespan of the interim design not only gives the city and neighborhood time to decide whether to go for a permanent change (we hope they do!), it also offers time to allocate money in the municipal budget to make that happen. 

Memphis is a shining example of how taking small, low-cost steps can lead to more permanent change that benefits a neighborhood and a city, without risking detrimental public backlash or precious money in the city budget.

    Want more ideas for tactical urbanism that you can do in your own neighborhood? Check out the free Tactical Urbanism Guides created by the Street Plans Collaborative, as well as People for Bikes' report, Quick Builds for Better Streets.

    (Top photo by John Paul Schaffer)

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