Friday, 11 April 2014

Break the Rules - Get Tactical

Break the Rules - Get Tactical.

As the tactical urbanism movement gathers pace across the globe. Communities, professionals, residents, neighbourhoods, cyclists, pedestrians, mums, dads, kids, and so on, are all beginning to realise that urban design and place shaping is not solely the domain of the government or local authority.  People and community led place interventions and movements are often found to be better planned, more responsibly designed, more cost effective, more responsive to local need and better used than those delivered by the powers that be.  However this movement, which has seen changes to places such as Times Square in New York and the creation of pop up protected bike lanes in Denver has struggled to get a strong foothold in the UK.
In the UK we probably lead the world in written guidance about better quality places, public realm, urban design, streets, spaces, and community engagement.  Add to this that across the country a great deal of community engagement and neighbourhood planning is taking place. Yet when it comes to doing it on the ground then quite often smaller interventions such as knit bombing and graffiti art appear to be the mainstay.  That’s not to say it doesn’t happen in some places and I would mention the excellent work of the DIY Streets programme run by Sustrans plus a few others listed at the end of this blog.  However this appears to be more isolated projects and definitely not the norm of street or place interventions. 
Small Scale Street Interventions

Other countries, while lacking the plethora of guidance, just appear to get on with this approach possibly not held back by our sensibilities. Maybe it's our UK view that the state delivers change in the public domain not communities, that unless it's official and sanctioned it's not our place to redesign the local park or street.  We appear to be happy that the local bus station has looked like the arse end of town for the last 20 years despite the production of three separate strategies and several independent reports calling for its change and upgrade. Content that the town square has remained as a glorified surface car park since a few souls started parking Morris Minors on it in the 1950s. Furthermore when and if delivered by developers we are content that some three letter acronym corporate architecture firm with no local knowledge and limited place skills will design and deliver a soulless plaza or new shiny quarter to our town or city.  Community Engagement in these cases is often limited to viewing a few sharp photo-montages and being asked leading questions about the choice of lights, bollards or paving colour.

Low Cost Interventions Can Transform Places
Some have said it's the term tactical urbanism, others the reluctance of local authorities to embrace this sort of approach both of which have some credence. However, it should be noted that this has not held the movement back in other parts of the world. It's is still happening in places where urbanism or placeshaping is not professionally well established, where there is little guidance and in many places where the local authority is more deeply entrenched than it is in the UK.  Maybe this difference in context is one of the reasons it happens - maybe having no guidance is better than lots of it.
Does the UK context prevent us intervening?

However I believe that in the UK we are still failing to realise the value of DIY interventions in places and the many benefits it can have. So for those considering its use in their neighbourhood or community I thought I would set out a few.

Engagement and Real Change

The ability to inspire local people to make real change, to fire up a genuine interest in the future of a place.  Tactical urbanism gives engagement and change a real purpose and end goal.  This isn't being asked about the wording in some dreary policy document or to choose between crappy option A or crappy option B. Often the question asked by local authorities is why don't more people get involved in our decisions well the answer quite often is because local authorities make it so incredibly tedious and boring.  And my do they make it boring! There is very little that is boring about tactical urbanism, the ability to physically change a place for the better with your neighbours, community and local business.  This is how UK towns, villages and cities were born and grew in the UK and should be a rediscovered route to how they change and adapt now. What many local authorities miss is that it is also a very powerful tool in bridging a gap between local authorities and the communities they serve. It may help with issues I raised in this earlier Blog.

Communities 'Build a Better Block' Project, Philadelphia - Can the UK follow?

Actual Real World Testing

The ability to actual test what happens when you close a lane off, slim down a complex junction create sitting areas or create a park out of a large surface car park.  Test the real world effects of these changes, impacts and the benefits, not just on traffic movement but social impacts too.  Don't run your scheme through some half-baked techno geek modelling program which everyone tells you was the wrong sort of modelling and doesn't actually model the true impact of changes - as they say garbage in, garbage out.  Modelling factors cold numbers and never reacts to how people use space or the changes people make when spaces and streets actually happen on the ground. It is a sad state of affairs that our UK towns and Cities are shaped more by virtual traffic flow calculations than they are by what a place should be. Computer models will never factor in the how the dwellers of places, pedestrians, businesses and cyclists economically, environmentally and socially benefit from the improved urban environment.

Cost effective and shows intent.

This approach is comparably cheap and easy to do. It doesn't take expensive granite kerbs or bespoke art installations this can be done with a few concrete blocks, paint, some planters and a few temporary tables and chairs. In times of austerity and dwindling budgets this approach is a very sensible and justifiable one. It can avoid dealing with services below ground - the single most important factor in the rising cost of public realm and infrastructure projects.  If the proposal doesn't work or causes real local issues then it's very easy to rectify or adjust, again at very low cost. It also demonstrates that an area has intent to change that it doesn't have to wait 10 years for the new shopping area, road diet or the new quayside development. No huge budget bottom line has to be reached before it’s done.  It shows a city or town can control its own destiny and is not solely in the hands of a development partner - who more often than not is more interested in a profit margin or shareholder interest.

Café in Antiques Quarter, Bridport, Dorset
Social Benefit

These schemes are often led and driven by local communities and therein create social capital that is more valuable than a few neighbourhood meetings or a neighbourhood watch scheme.  They bring people together not just to design and craft an idea but to build and use the place, streets or facility created. This is what true place shaping is all about and therefore one asks, again, why we don’t do it more in the UK?

Street Fair in Bath
Economic Benefits

Many schemes result in improved access, public space or new facilities all of which benefit the residents and business around them.  Recent tactical interventions in the US saw significant uplift in rents, increase patronage of local shops and businesses. This then gave credence to do more and spend further time on doing some of them as permanent schemes. With the current threats to our local high streets, economy and businesses, this has to be a logical step in improving local sustainable economic income.

Tactical Café Advert, Falmouth, Cornwall

Results in properly thought through and well designed schemes

It engenders an interest so much greater than a strategy document sitting on a dusty shelf. It tests the real effect not just on traffic and parking but more importantly on people and how they interact with a new space and a pop up store. It irons out the wrinkles easily and with little fuss and at low cost.  It creates real conversations and problems solving between designers and communities.  If successful enough it can lead to a full scheme with all the whistles and bells.  Being able to do this quickly and at low cost is invaluable as a design tool both at concept stage, through design and onto implementation.

Educates and inspires

Seeing people get involved in this sort of project inspires them to want to help shape their area and surroundings.  It acts as real education in places and spaces helping all sides to understand the issues faced when making a change to an area.  It allows professionals and local authorities to show communities how decisions are balanced and involves them in the choice and decisions process. It leads to other projects and initiatives and when people realise how easy it is and successful they want to do more – surely this should be a key part of the much talked about localism agenda.

Heath Ledger and Christian Bale
Get Tactical During Filming of Batman.

Summary Rant

I believe it's about time we realised in the UK that sometimes we might have to grip the bull by the horns and take hold of projects as a community.  Check out the links at the end of this piece or Google ‘Tactical Urbanism’ and see how it's being done in other places.  They may not all be in the UK but that should not make a scrap of difference. The benefits to social, environmental and economic aims of a place can truly benefit in a time when true sustainability can be created through interventions at a neighbourhood level.

Local authorities need to wake up to this too and I have found some transport departments that appear to block some of these initiatives but hopefully as communities and professionals we can begin to challenge and change that.  I have been contacted by community groups very keen to do this type of intervention being blocked by extremely regimented officers, processes and procedures.  There probably is a UK notion that we don't do this the government or the local authority does, however if this can be championed in other parts of the world surely we can do so here?  Isn’t it time we grew beyond the smaller intervention in the UK and have a go at closing off some lanes on a city centre road or converting a major town centre surface car park into a real park! 

With regard to what it’s called I don’t have the answer and not really sure it matters that much.  Call it what you will Tactical Urbanism, DIY Places, Pop-up Projects, Lean Urbanism, just get out and do something. Don’t wait for it just to happen because in a great deal of cases it probably won’t.

Currently I am researching and working on a few early stage projects on how this can be done in more UK Cities, Towns and Streets with the use of soft measures, local community groups, temporary TROs, Pop Up Facilities, Street Closures, removal of parking so if you want to know more get in touch via Twitter @shapetheplace or  I will also set up a list blog with examples in and continue to update and add to as people send me links and info.  Please also check out this great resource from the US called Tactical Urbanism 2.

Pop-up Bar near the National Theatre, London

My thanks also go out to friends and colleagues on Social Media who have suggested a few examples in the UK.  So please look at the links below and hopefully this may inspire a few more of us to do something in our towns and cities. 

The UK Getting Tactical - Links

Pop-up Cafes, Kings Cross, London

Dairy Crest, Totnes. A communities passion to Imagine a hub that is the heart of a new economy for Totnes and further afield, a food entrepreneursschool, affordable housing, a business incubator, a living, breathing taste of sustainability in practice, rising from the ashes of the derelict Dairy Crest site.

Coin Street Community Builders (CSCB) is a social enterprise and development trust which seeks to make Londons South Bank a better place in which to live, to work and to visit. Since 1984 CSCB has transformed a largely derelict 13 acre site into a thriving mixed use neighbourhood.

Sustrans brings communities together to help them redesign their streets to make them safer and more attractive places to live, where people come first. These projects are known as DIY Streets and offer an affordable, community-led alternative to the home zones design concept.

UK Guerrilla Gardening a place for guerrillas and wannabe guerrillas from around the world. Enlist with a username and password to share your guerrilla gardening plans, activity and advice. Find support or just go for it solo, sow the seed and get something growing.

Knit the City.  "Yarnstorming (also known as yarnbombing): the art of enhancing a public place or object with graffiti knitting" (Or putting knitting on something unexpected in public and running always giggling wildly).

Three years ago one street in South Bristol, backed by the city council, trialled the idea of a temporary road closure to let children play out safe from traffic danger. These residents then went on to help other local streets open for playfor a couple of hours after school to let local children use the space for scooting, chalking, racing, skipping and a host of other games.

The Headington Shark in Oxford – Shark in a Roof – Enough Said!

Watching and Hoping to See More

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