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From Pop-Up to Permanent: Five lessons in tactical urbanism

By Melinda Hanson and Majed Abdulsamad

Urban residents have long practiced a form of tactical urbanism: repurposing underutilized places using temporary materials and transforming them into more dynamic public spaces.

But in the past several years, tactical urbanism has become a movement. Frustrated by slow, expensive, and often exclusionary project delivery approaches, urban practitioners have found interim interventions to be an effective tactic for finding what works and getting projects on the ground. These temporary projects can help to encourage meaningful public engagement and generate support for permanent projects by allowing people to experience what’s possible, rather than just looking at renderings.

Les Bouquinistes in Paris began transforming the Seine River bank into bookstores in the 1800s – Photo credit: LartNouveau.com

Interim approaches have been used to reclaim streets and repurpose them as parks, plazas, transit streets, bike lanes, and even gardens. We’ve seen how these interim approaches can inspire real change, such as in the case of New York City’s Times Square, below, which started with temporary street closures, paint, and inexpensive beach chairs and today includes custom designed granite benches, tables, and designated activity zones for the city’s street performers.

New York’s Times Square transformation started as an interim project – Photo credit: NACTO-GDCI

But how does this happen? What do urban practitioners need to do to ensure that these pop-up interventions actually result in real projects, or better yet, jumpstart large-scale change?

NACTO-GDCI recently hosted a webinar to compare notes and capture lessons learned in interim urbanism. Based on presentations from Mike Lydon, Principal of Street Plans Collaborative, and Skye Duncan Director of NACTO-GDCI, we compiled the below list of five lessons for ensuring interim projects move from pop-up to permanent.
1. Uncover value
There’s a lot of underutilized space in cities. Tactical urbanism can be used to uncover value and demonstrate how an underutilized space could be transformed to contribute to safety, community building, or economic goals. In his presentation, Mike talked about his team’s experience transforming what once was a vacant lot in downtown Miami into an inviting public space that attracted more than 20,000 visitors over the course of 23 days. The transformation of ‘Biscayne Green Park’ immediately added value and helped to encourage political commitments for improving mobility and public space in the area.

Biscayne Green- a pop-up park in Downtown Miami (2017) – Photo credit: StreetPlans Collaborative

 

 

2. Engage stakeholders from the beginning

Public outreach can help to generate new ideas, build community support, and improve local understanding of urban issues. “Engaging the community before an interim intervention is critical to generating support for permanent change,” said Skye Duncan, citing examples of engaging residents and engineers in the Santana neighborhood of São Paulo, Brazil. In this example, the team organized community workshops, conducted surveys to gauge local opinion, and used chalk and cones to test the proposed geometry. While it can be time-consuming, this type of engagement makes all the difference in securing the support necessary to move to permanent implementation. [For more on lessons learned from the Santana community engagement experience, check out our blog post here].

Engaging community members in one of GDCI’s interim projects in Sao Paulo, Brazil – Photo credit: NACTO – GDCI

 

3. Document and measure

Both speakers emphasized the importance of before and after photos and metrics. Photos are most compelling when the before and after shots match perfectly, so some advanced planning of location, angle, and time of day is critical. Capturing different angles—including several street-level photos from the height of an adult and the height of a child, in addition to aerial photos—can make this documentation even more compelling.
Collecting before and after metrics is also crucial to support permanent implementation. Counting private vehicles, transit users, cyclists, and pedestrians as well as soliciting people’s feelings about the space can help planners to understand how use might change with a new design. Other metrics may change depending on the goal of the project. For example, projects aimed at improving pedestrian safety should measure turning speeds and crosswalk compliance, while projects intended to create or enhance public space should measure the number of visitors and time spent in the area. For more on what to measure and how to measure it, check out some ideas from the GSDG and Street Plans Collaborative workshops. And check out GDCI’s webinar on Measuring People-Friendly Street.

Collecting metrics on pedestrian volumes, vehicle speeds, and other key metrics helps to inform updated streets designs – Photo credits: NACTO – GDCI

 

4. Attract Attention

Using colorful materials, art, and creative promotional materials will help draw attention to an interim transformation. Coordinating a transformation with a planned event or organizing new programming can help to activate the space and attract media attention. In Fortaleza, for example, a project team for Cidade 2000 organized a “learn to ride” bike workshop and offered an urban furniture workshop, in addition to scheduling programming that included live music, health clinics, and a pop-up barbershop. Bright colorful ground markings helped people to see the swath of asphalt in a new light and incorporated games invited children to play and engage in the space.

 

An interim intervention created space for public performers at Anbessa Zoo Intersection in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – Photo credit: NACTO-GDCI

 

5. Position projects to inspire programs or policies

Tactical urbanism can be used to pilot new approaches which in turn might transform policy or inspire new programs. For example, Burlington, Vermont’s Quick Build Program was inspired by a successful interim project. The Program uses low-cost materials to test new design approaches and uses these demonstration project to update street design standards. And in Addis Ababa, the experience transforming LeGare intersection to make it safer for pedestrians inspired the city to develop the Safe Intersections Program which uses street design to improve safety in crash hotspots. The Program will test new geometries and retrofit intersections around Addis Ababa.


Tactical urbanism has become a valuable tool in the urban practitioner toolbox. Much has been learned since the first Parking Day, and there are many examples of practitioners using low-cost materials to install temporary transformations, gather public and political support, and implement permanent projects.

But tactical urbanism is not a magic bullet, planners and designers must demonstrate value, engage stakeholders, measure project success, attract attention, and use interim interventions to inspire larger scale change if we are to succeed in reclaiming our streets and creating better cities for all. For more details on the examples presented here, watch the full webinar and review the presentations on our website. For more on interim interventions, check out Open Streets Project’s new collaboration guidebook, and the GSDG interim strategies chapter.

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