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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.

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Before the Porch, that plaza was a “place desert,” one of those weirdly barren, urban no man’s lands. There was nothing wrong with its location. In fact, it’s just steps from the third-busiest Amtrak terminal in the country. It just needed a nudge — a little seating, a few programmed events — to get people to see it as somewhere to be and activate the space as they choose.

“The ‘Lighter Quicker Cheaper’ method gets people focused on the uses,” says Kent. “Typically people can’t see how they can change the public realm because they feel like they’re depending on big capital projects.” But when city governments become tactical urbanists, it combines the best of both worlds: a space provided and sanctioned by the city, but one that the community can remake in its own image.

One concern is that such methods are just budget cutting dressed up as innovation, the government sloughing its planning duties onto its citizens — a risk that Lydon is aware of. “In some cases these pilot projects look cheap, and that’s not a good thing if the city’s not intent on either making them permanent or removing them,” he says. “We don’t want to see these temporary plazas go uncared for.” In fact, one of the perks of ‘Lighter Quicker Cheaper’ is that it’s easier to fail and move on. “If you’re failing at $10,000 instead of a million dollars, that’s a better way to look for long-lasting changes,” says Lydon.

Still, it’s true that there can be a slapdash feel to some of these projects. In 2009, the New York Post bemoaned the “flimsy and tacky” lawn chairs in Times Square. But had that pilot program failed and the plaza not become permanent, the same paper would have been screaming about the money lost on high-quality furniture. Just three years later, cities have learned that smaller and cheaper, even if initially flimsy, is a smarter way to start. San Antonio has crowd-sourced over 300 inexpensive ideas from its residents on how to make its tourist-oriented downtown more appealing to locals. And a redesign plan for Baltimore’s downtown talks about restricting parking at certain times of day to recapture pedestrian space — a no-cost  solution that simply opens up space for multiple uses.

“Through this layering of uses, emergent qualities and serendipitous activities start to happen,” says Kent. “This isn’t just hanging flower baskets. It’s enabling communities to showcase their identity in the public realm.”


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