Every year, communities come together to take back parking-spot-sized parcels of the street, transforming them into pedestrian-centric installations. Though PARK(ing) Day lasts mere hours, other forms of tactical urbanism exist globally in various degrees of permanence, engaging and influencing the evolution of communities, public space, and informing the relationship between an urban environment its inhabitants.
The third Friday of September is globally recognized as PARK(ing) Day.
The name PARK(ing) Day is certainly tongue-in-cheek for its original intention: to place a tiny park (parklet) within the confines of a metered parking space.
Alone, this can be seen as an act of friendly defiance of the automobile-dominated public right-of-way, or a form of respectful protest; but either way, this concept is deeply rooted in a larger collection of citizen-led place-making efforts we call Tactical Urbanism.
What is tactical urbanism?
You’ve likely noticed many examples of tactical urbanism in your walks around town — that odd piece of found art hanging from the street pole, the ad-hoc crosswalk stripes with multiple colors, or the random burst of flowers along an otherwise bleak sidewalk. These are the historically unsanctioned examples of tactical urbanism, where individuals mobilize to increase public art, bring safety hazards out of the periphery, or beautify neighborhoods through acute and intentional (hence tactical) acts of place-making (urbanism).
The appeal of tactical urbanism is strongly correlated with the human desire to affect our environment, but it hasn’t been until the 21st century that we have seen this method of intervention work its way into public space planning and design studios.
Rapid Prototyping for Urban Environments
As part of public planning initiatives, employing tactical-style improvements is a smart move for two major reasons: it’s temporary and it’s cheap. For example, The City of New York’s Department of Transportation noted an increase in the number of automobile accidents around Times Square, a huge tourist destination. Wondering if giving the area over to foot traffic would solve the problem, they did a short-term test in the summer of 2009. City officials barricaded Broadway with traffic cones and deposited a few truckloads of umbrellas, planters, and lawn chairs into the space. The new pedestrian plaza was a hit and the city made the change permanent a few years later.
While we have to acknowledge the confirmation bias of this example, let’s consider the implications of the experiment in Times Square. Even had it not been a success, what was the worst that could happen? The folding chairs would go back to the warehouse and the public space returned to its original layout. Perhaps the City would have a few disgruntled remarks from rideshare drivers. No harm, no foul, little to no tax dollars wasted on a speculative design move.
Too often in these large scale city-altering projects, we see City officials and design teams change spaces based on well-meaning census data and design theorems, but rarely do they create full-scale models to demonstrate the success of ideas before construction begins.
Tactical urbanism is (and should be considered as) a form of rapid prototyping for city planners, design professionals, and change-oriented citizens. Pop-up bike lanes, short term street closures for farmer’s markets, and artist-painted traffic control boxes, are all examples of temporary, experimental interventions testing their fitness in the public realm.
However, tactical urbanism doesn’t need to lead to something permanent in the built environment to be successful. While the DIY-style actions make tactical urbanism economically valuable for testing ideas, it is equally valuable as a social tool for community engagement.
With the help of tactical urbanism, city leadership, designers, and neighborhoods can evaluate the success of long term improvements with short term interventions. This ability to monitor functionality and safety also allows time for grassroots community input.
There are many nuances of neighborhood life and movement that cannot be understood unless you spend every day navigating that space. By showing citizens a real-life prototype of design intentions, residents and business owners can experience the physical effects of increased safety and mobility, and are given a chance to influence the final improvements by providing input based on lived experiences.
This feedback loop empowers communities and increases trust between citizens and city leadership, significantly improving a community's capacity to vocalize their ideas and engage in planned changes to their neighborhood. Instead of city-hall-style public meetings, design and planning decisions can be experienced live, at a 1:1 scale, reducing inconvenient meeting times, alienating "design speak," and hostile Q&A sessions.
While the tape, chalk, and cones of tactical interventions ultimately go away, the success of an event can be measured by how many residents asked, “How can we make this permanent?” This type of interest in the public right-of-way is crucial to fostering a ground-up mentality, providing planning power to the people and propelling tactical urbanism forward as a key element in future city-building initiatives.
Transforming Perceptions of Ownership
In addition to empowering communities to re-think and re-shape their own spaces, tactical urbanism can create incremental paradigm shifts in the way we view, understand, and imagine our public spaces. Tactical interventions can transform notions of public space from “other” — the realm of someone else’s responsibility, outside of the public’s control — to spaces where individuals and community groups can reimagine and enact their own ideas.
Parklets and guerilla planting interventions are great examples of tactical interventions that can shift our perceptions of public space. Planting sunflower seeds between cracks in the concrete, on stripes of disused land, or around construction sites, can shift a passerby’s perspective of a patch of dirt from leftover space to a summer garden.
Placing chairs and benches in a parking space can shift a shop owner’s perspective of a concrete road from "space for one customer to move through" to "space for several customers to linger."
And, grafting fruiting tree branches onto the trunks of non-fruiting street trees can shift a local community’s perspective from simply walking by ornamental trees, to making those same trees a destination to pick fruit with their family and neighbors.
The simple act of creating something surprising from something mundane has the power to change individual perspectives of everyday spaces and incite paradigm shifts of what public space can be and who it belongs to, sparking a revolution in how we think about our cities.
Join us for some tactical urbanism in the form of PARK(ing) Day 2019!
Seattle is a hospitable environment for tactical urbanism and we are taking full advantage at this year’s PARK(ing) Day event. We have developed an interactive game, designed as a cross between whack-a-mole and Twister, to encourage random visitors to work together and talk to each other.
This interactive, sculptural game is built into an 8'x16' platform and nested within a larger traffic safety element known as a “curb bulb-out”. The space within the curb bulb-out showcases many tactical urbanism opportunities: creating a shorter crosswalk distance across Harrison, positioning a new space for civic engagement or public art installation at a busy intersection, and improving visibility for drivers approaching the intersection at Harrison & 15th Avenue East.
This is an experiment in multi-functional public space through tactical devices. Oh, and it’s kinda kooky — just like our neighborhood.
PARK(ing) Day 2019 is on Friday, September 20th. The B&V team will be at the intersection of Harrison and 15th Avenue East, from 8AM to 3PM. We hope to see you there!