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America's Urban Renaissance Is Being Driven by Thinking Small

Forget stadiums: Let's build a pop-up park. Smart cities know the future is cooler, cheaper -- and smaller.

Photo Credit: YANGCHAO/



Last week, a press release from Chicago’s Office of the Mayor proclaimed something that would have sounded like a  Yes Men prank just a few years ago: Rahm Emanuel, it said, has a plan to get rid of the city’s  “excess asphalt.”

It wasn’t a proposal for a big new park or recreational facility, but a plan to take little bits of public space here and there — streets, parking spots, alleyways — and turn them into places for people. It was the latest example of a municipal government taking an active role in tactical urbanism, that low-cost, low-commitment, incremental approach to city building — the “let’snot build a stadium” strategy.

For a long time, tactical urbanism was associated with guerrilla gardeners and fly-by-night pop-up parks, whereas large-scale “city planning” was seen as the job of bureaucrats with blueprints. But more and more often, City Hall is taking a more active (as opposed to purely reactive) role in these types of smaller, cheaper, localized efforts, and sometimes even leading them. “Tactical urbanism has always been a combination of both bottom-up and top-down,” says Mike Lydon, a principal at the Street Plans Collaborative, an urban planning firm, “but now you’re seeing more of these ideas proliferate at the municipal level.”

In a way, thinking small is the next logical step in America’s urban renaissance. When cities really started changing 10 or 15 years ago, the economy was booming and the Internet was a newfangled gizmo. Today, cities have less money but more ways to communicate, two conditions perfectly suited to more focused, low-cost planning. Now you can home in on a specific neighborhood (or even just a few blocks), find out what the residents there want or need, cheaply implement it on a trial basis, and make it permanent if it works.

“We try to distinguish tactical urbanism from DIY urbanism and other similar movements,” says Lydon. “The intent is always to make something long-term and permanent.” In essence, cheap, ephemeral projects act as advertisements for better infrastructure. A roll-up crosswalk ends up  painted onto the street by the city. An instant playground is  taken over and maintained by the parks department. Just last week in Cleveland, after a pop-up cycle track was  removed after its one-week lifespan, locals, disappointed to see it gone, starting asking the city for a permanent one to replace it.

Its easy to see why penny-pinching local governments would want to get in on this. The  pedestrianization of Times Square, which began in 2009 as a pilot program that utilized little more than paint, orange traffic barrels and $10 lawn chairs, was a landmark moment in city-sanctioned tactical urbanism (the plaza has since been upgraded with curbs and sturdier seating). That same year, San Francisco launched  Pavement to Parks, an initiative to turn underused street space into pedestrian refuges. Upon dedicating the first one, Mayor Gavin Newsom acknowledged that the city was catching up with what was already a grass-roots phenomenon. “I know that many of you have been talking about this for … at least 13 or 14 years,” he said. “Formally, it’s been at least a decade since community groups came together and talked about converting this pavement into a plaza.”

New York and San Francisco were early adopters, but Ethan Kent, vice president of the nonprofit Project for Public Spaces (PPS), says that until recently, such efforts existed as “a cool trend, but not the paradigm shift” that’s now transforming official policy. Last week in Philadelphia, for instance, the chief of staff for the mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities announced that the city would add more parklets and pedestrian plazas this year, building on the success of  the Porch, a public plaza created in November out of underused space near 30th Street Station for the low cost (by municipal standards) of $300,000. This “Lighter Quicker Cheaper” endeavor, as PPS calls it, resulted in a space where less turned out to be more: Instead of spending lots of money to program it, it was left flexible for people to program themselves. Today, depending on when you show up at the Porch, you could find a fitness class, a farmer’s market, a live performance, or some of the 16,000 people who work within a five-minute walk eating lunch there.

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