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DIY urban planning is happening nationwide. Is it only for white people?

🕐 7 min read

Last year, a group of San Diego real estate professional had an idea. What if they threw a “better block” party in a low-income Latino neighborhood called Barrio Logan? Maybe, they thought, it would create a buzz about the neighborhood and get residents outside, walking around and talking to their neighbors.

The organizers put in benches and planters and closed the street for a nighttime festival. But business owners bristled at the notion that these outsiders knew better than locals how to improve the neighborhood. “They told us they were going to help us build a better block, when we’ve already been here building a better block for years,” one told the Voice of San Diego. A number of stores closed in protest, and the DJ ended up playing his set to a near-empty street.

The Barrio Logan incident captures the potential, and the potential pitfalls, of “tactical urbanism,” a new movement transforming cities. Tactical urbanism — which also goes by “DIY urbanism” or “creative placemaking” — uses small, often short-term fixes (like an artistically painted intersection) to promote wider and more permanent changes to a city (like reclaiming streets for walkers and cyclists). It tries to make the most of underused urban spaces such as vacant lots and deserted plazas, often through the medium of art. Washington, D.C., offers plenty of examples: the daily lineup of food trucks that turns a downtown square into an outdoor lunchroom, free jazz concerts in a neighborhood park, the weekend widening of sidewalks in another neighborhood so people pushing strollers can breathe a little easier.

As cities nationwide undergo a revival, their denizens are bursting with practical ideas to improve their neighborhoods and feel empowered to try them out. This spirited flurry of “city hacking” has opened the lid on the wonky discipline of urban planning and is starting to change the fabric of people’s daily lives.

But since many cities also contend with stark inequality, it’s worth asking who these fixes are intended for and how this new spirit of engaged urban citizenship can benefit everyone. Washington’s director of planning, Eric Shaw, is a fan of tactical urbanism but blunt about its class and race limitations: “A lot of the approaches inherently sometimes assume a privilege in using public space and existing in public space.”

Shaw cited PARK(ing) Day, which turns metered parking spaces into tiny public parks one day each fall. The tradition has spread from San Francisco all over the globe.

“PARK(ing) Day is really nice,” Shaw said. “But if five black males took over a parking spot and had a barbecue and listened to music . . . would they last 10 minutes?”

The term “tactical urbanism” was coined in 2010 by city planner Mike Lydon. The field draws on the interventionist art of the 1970s, as well as much older phenomena like the chuckwagons that fed cowboys in the West and the booksellers who’ve set up stalls on the Seine for centuries.

But its rise was sparked by more recent events. Starting in about 2005, a series of unrelated guerrilla projects nationwide became minor sensations thanks to their effectiveness, and the internet. Often these forays were born out of citizens’ frustration with the status quo and the glacial pace of local bureaucracies.

In 2012, graduate student Matt Tomasulo wanted to create signs encouraging fellow residents of Raleigh, N.C., to get out of their cars and walk. The cost of the necessary permits and the months-long wait made him go rogue, devising a system of cheap, detachable signs directing people to local attractions and indicating how long it would take to walk there, often not nearly as long as they believed. Next, Tomasulo created walkyourcity.org, a how-to website for those who want to post similar signs in their own cities. Now Raleigh and other cities are dotted with his signs.

Increasingly, though, tactical urbanism is being employed by local governments themselves. In the past few months in suburban Washington, one county painted a bright purple pathway through a parking lot to improve pedestrian safety, at a cost of $2,500; another used tape and potted plants to create a temporary bike lane on a busy street. What citizens might have done in the dead of night is now something government employees do in broad daylight, then proudly share with local blogs.

The movement’s clearest victory is the taming of New York’s Times Square. On Memorial Day weekend in 2009, officials closed the square to automobiles and put out lawn chairs and orange traffic barrels, creating temporary plazas. These were a hit, and in 2010, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced they would become permanent. In the pilot phase, the city measured less congestion in Midtown and a significant drop in injuries to both motorists and pedestrians. Foot traffic in Times Square increased by 11 percent, good news for retailers.

Tactical urbanism challenges the assumption that cities can improve only through major spending and tortuous rounds of paperwork and approvals. It allows citizens and officials to test new ideas at low cost and risk.

But the movement raises questions about who these improvements are for and what kind of cities they will mold. Pop-up beer gardens and temporary climbing walls are great — if you’re a young, able-bodied adult. But as millennials start to raise families, and as the elderly population grows, urban spaces must welcome all ages and abilities. Neighborhood “play streets” that are closed to traffic, curb cuts for wheelchair and stroller access, and benches at bus stops may not project an image of urban cool, but they bring multi-generational benefits.

More broadly, newer urban interventions tend to serve wealthy communities, sometimes at the expense of poorer city-dwellers, particularly those of color. The bitter clash this year between Washington bike advocates and historically African-American churches over a planned bike lane is a case in point. Leaders of one church claimed the lane would make parking almonst impossible; some cyclists dismissed them as car-loving suburbanites who had no stake in D.C. The dispute was a proxy for changing power dynamics in a gentrifying city, and zero-sum attitudes on both sides made compromise difficult.

Gordon Douglas, a University of Chicago academic who studies cities, surveyed DIY urban improvers and found that most were highly educated — often planners or designers by training — and active in their own prosperous or gentrifying neighborhoods. By contrast, “it can be really hard to get people from underprivileged communities to be active participants,” Douglas said. People working long hours with limited child-care options often can’t find the time. And for those without political capital, rankling authorities is much more of a risk.

Too, the “tactical urbanist” label tends to be applied to one type of urban experimenter and not others. “There’s been tactical urbanism in lower-income communities,” said Veronica O. Davis, a civil engineer and urban-planning consultant in Washington. “It’s called graffiti.”

Davis cited the gap between the largely white and middle-class planning profession and the general public. “What’s the difference between a mural, which is paint on the wall, and graffiti, which is paint on the wall? That’s where the disconnect comes in. . . . There’s always this need [for planners] to redefine something.”

There’s much that tactical urbanism can’t do. It won’t solve the affordable-housing crisis or lack of investment in infrastructure and comprehensive planning. It won’t streamline the reviews and approvals designed to involve the public, assess impact and incorporate different agencies. And the outcome can’t necessarily be controlled. In New York, the homeless converted some new public WiFi kiosks, intended for temporary use, into outdoor living rooms, prompting complaints.

Still, the movement offers a new way of looking at urban transformation. And changes can be positive without being universally embraced. One example is the “plastic park” that took shape near a Washington Metro stop over the years as locals contributed child-size plastic play structures and toys. Some families loved it; others complained it was ugly and unsafe. The plastic was cleared out this year.

Now a community group, Barracks Row Main Street, is forming a 501(c)3 to adopt the park and plans a state-of-the-art playground “inspired by the plastic park,” Executive Director Martin Smith said. The jumble of toys was an eyesore to some – and a crucial step toward something better.

That’s how tactical urbanism works: Sometimes, we don’t realize what we need until we actually have it.

– Hurley is a freelance journalist in Silver Spring, Md.

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