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Are We There Yet? Tactical Urbanism

Editor's Note: Lack of open space and of resources for new parks and public spaces has given rise to “tactical urbanism.” This week's excerpt from Are We There Yet? looks at the quick, cheap, often temporary interventions staged in order to make neighborhoods more lively and enjoyable.

The cost of creating the average community park can run into millions of dollars, and finding new park land in existing communities, especially urban neighborhoods, is particularly tough. As a result, new parks and especially small “pocket parks” are sprouting up in unlikely places, including landfills, rooftops, reservoirs and even cemeteries.

The new park that everyone has been talking about is in the most improbable of places. New York City’s High Line park is built on an abandoned elevated rail line that once brought freight cars into the factories and warehouses that lined the streets of Chelsea.

Paul Goldberger, writing in National Geographic in 2011, describes the park as “part promenade, part town square and part botanical garden,” and he says:  “Walking on the High Line is unlike any other experience in New York. You float about 25 feet above the ground, at once connected to street life and far away from it. You can sit surrounded by carefully tended plantings and take in the sun and the Hudson River views, or you can walk the line as it slices between old buildings and past striking new ones . . . Not the least of the remarkable things about the High Line is the way, without streets to cross or traffic lights to wait for, ten blocks pass as quickly as two.”

Like many public and private investments, however, the High Line is being linked to gentrifying adjacent neighborhoods and property in an already unaffordable city. This is yet another example of how a city can do well in terms of one measure of making a community more complete — by providing park access — but continue to be challenged in terms of another key measure: equitable access to amenities.

The difficulty of finding park space has also driven park advocates to reclaim the streets — estimated to cover nearly a third of the urban landscape — as active public spaces. Some cities are even going so far as to identify some streets in their regional parks systems, thereby emphasizing them as important places to “share the road.” Portland, Oregon, for example, has set a goal of making 25 percent of all trips be on bicycle by 2030, and in order to do so is developing neighborhood greenways that can be used for biking and walking. By 2015, Portland plans that 80 percent of residents will live within a half-mile of a neighborhood greenway.

The lack of open space and of resources for new parks and public spaces has given rise to a movement that has been called “tactical urbanism” — quick, cheap, often temporary interventions that can be staged in order to make a small part of a neighborhood more lively and enjoyable, and provide people with the know-how to stage interventions in other communities.

The 2012 Tactical Urbanism 2: Short-term Action, Long-term Gain by the Street Plans Collaborative, an urban planning, design and advocacy firm, describes interventions including: “guerilla gardening,” “open streets,” “pavement-to-parks,” and “depaving” (a project to improve storm water treatment by removing unnecessary driveways and concrete surfaces) as well as the popular annual “Park(ing) Day,” now staged in hundreds of cities across the U.S., when parking spaces are turned into temporary parks.

 “Tactical urbanism is how most cities are built, really, especially in the developing nations,” lead author Mike Lydon notes on the online magazine The Atlantic Cities. “It’s step-by-step, piece-by-piece. We’re noticing more and more of these tactics are popping up and leading to longer-term change. It’s very appropriate [considering] the way the economy [is].”


Why Nimbys Are Becoming Yimbys

Residents who oppose change in their neighborhoods – the notorious NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard) – get a lot of media attention. But in fact more and more neighbors are coming together to say “Yes In My Backyard” to both development and to density – two things NIMBYs abhor – because they’ve seen the community benefits these generate. Neighbors in suburban Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, are urging a doubling or tripling of density, hoping that — as in Bethesda, Maryland, and Arlington County, Virginia — it will increase their home values, which escalated in Bethesda and Arlington by 40 to 80 percent.

A 2009 study by Goody Clancy, an architecture and urban design firm in Boston, finds that it takes about 1,500 new residents in a half-mile radius to support one new block of stores. This corresponds to neighborhoods with gross densities — not counting streets and parks — of 15 to 30 dwelling units per acre, which translates into a mix of narrow-lot detached single family houses, row houses, and low-rise lofts. Double that density to 60 units per acre — a density found in highly desirable neighborhoods such as Boston’s Back Bay — by adding mid- and high-rise housing to the mix.

Goody Clancy reports that when people are asked what they would like to add to their neighborhoods, the three top choices are: a vibrant Main Street that offers shops, services and public places including restaurants where residents can socialize; expanded housing options for those who are older, younger, or who have disabilities; and alternatives to dependence on cars.

Complementary research by Kittleson and Associates, a transportation planning, engineering and research firm, indicates that the densities that support a Main Street are about equal to what supports “walk-to-bus rapid transit” stations, removing the need for large and expensive parking structures. The higher densities required to support a supermarket can also support BRT service throughout the day.

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