COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Making Cities More Exclusive With Tactical Suburbanism: April Fools' 2019

Apr 1, 2019
Apr 2, 2019

This week, Project for Public Spaces and Brooklyn and Miami-based planning firm Street Plans announced the release of a new joint guide on DIY city-building. Tactical Suburbanism: Low-Density Ideas for High-Density Places, co-authored by Street Plans principals Mike Lydon and Tony Garcia and PPS Deputy Director of Transportation Laura Torchio, highlights projects from around the country where locals are using their own resources to implement informal projects that transform their streets from gritty, diverse places into exclusive communities for SUV parking and big-box shopping.

“We’ve always emphasized that the ‘tactical’ aspect of this planning approach is not about achieving a set of predetermined design outcomes,” says co-author Mike Lydon. “Rather, it’s a process where community engagement facilitates broader goal-setting, and then small, quick-build projects can be used to demonstrate tangible results right away. The projects can then be evaluated and adjusted in an iterative manner before a large capital investment is made. The twist here is that the projects are geared toward an auto-centric, suburban lifestyle.”

Greenwich Village's Jane street before Tactical Suburbanism interventions.
Jane Street after Tactical Suburbanism. Notice the cul-de-sac temporary fences, the sidewalk to front yard conversion, the branded brick wall, as well as a speed limit increase and new requirements for reflective gear to be worn by pedestrians and joggers.

In the book, Lydon, Garcia, and Torchio reference a groundswell of demand that is translating into local groups engaging in bootstrap efforts to suburbanize their neighborhoods. In one example from Portland, Oregon, an auto club called Grill Daddies went out one night and removed a bike lane using traffic cones and paint they bought at Walmart. What they discovered was that they were able to repurpose the extra street space to make wider driving lanes, dramatically increasing vehicle speeds. Local authorities allowed the unsanctioned installation to continue as a test, and they observed that, over the course of a few weeks, pedestrians started avoiding the street altogether. This allowed the group to follow-up with an expanded “Phase 2” iteration, removing crosswalks and traffic controls, and increasing the posted speed limit from 25 to 65 mph. The project was an instant sensation, and bike and transit commuters have switched to cars, driving from all over Oregon State to flock to the popular new crosstown corridor which is now chock-full of motorists from morning to night.

“One of the most exciting aspects of these projects,” says Laura Torchio, “is that citizens are using their own creativity and investing their own sweat equity to transform their neighborhood. This results in a level of buy-in that is much greater than if a state DOT had just come in and said ‘we’re turning your main street into a superhighway and all the local streets into cul-de-sacs.’ Now, using this lighter, quicker, cheaper approach, communities can make their own streets hostile to pedestrians and public life, virtually overnight.”

Building on the lessons learned from the projects showcased in the book, Project for Public Spaces and Street Plans are sharing their expertise by consulting with local municipalities and planning organizations throughout the country. One of these projects is in Manhattan’s historic Greenwich Village neighborhood, where a group of well-heeled citizen advocates hired the two organizations to facilitate Tactical Suburbanism interventions. The group, which calls themselves “Neighbors for Better Burbs,” brought the two organizations to the neighborhood to revive and widen a historic roadway through Washington Square Park, which a group of radical activists successfully had removed in the 1950s.

New York City's Greenwich Street before Tactical Suburbanism interventions. Note the surprising lack of cars in such a densely populated area. Where are all the drivers?
Greenwich street after Tactical Suburbanism. Parking has been moved onto sidewalk in a floating parking lane and all crosswalks and traffic controls have been removed. The real centerpiece is a two-lane to four-lane conversation for more driving capacity. At a glance, you would never know that the additional highway signage was produced in one week by elementary school students using paper mache.

“There’s really no limit to the creative ways that communities are suburbanizing their downtowns,” says Tony Garcia. “The important thing is determination. If the government bureaucracy won’t build what you want, use events and demonstration projects as a way to showcase possibilities and generate excitement. We’ve seen groups getting permits to gate and lock their parks for as little as one day, and businesses installing pop-up drive-through windows for a weekend. Here in Brooklyn, we have community organizations using traffic cones to section off small areas of the waterfront and simulating “deeded access rights” to greenways and promenades. It’s truly inspiring to watch people learn from the examples, take the ideas, and run with them.”

In the coming months, Project for Public Spaces and Street Plans will expand Tactical Suburbanism with an open-source materials and design guide. This online component will offer detailed specifications for procuring suburbanization toolkit elements such as fencing, concrete parking stops, grass seed, weed killer, lawn mowers, weed whackers, leaf blowers, pressure washers to remove those pesky bike lanes, and high-quality voice recordings saying, “Warning, vehicles may not stop.”

“As this trend grows into a movement,” said Lydon, “we want to make sure that individuals and advocacy groups are equipped with all the tools they need to feel empowered to realize their version of the suburban dream wherever they live.”

Related Articles & Resources
COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space