Is Smaller and Cheaper the Smarter Way to Start a Makeover?

In his "Dream City" column, Will Doig looks at the attributes making tactical urbanism the hot revitalization trend for municipal authorities across the country.
June 18, 2012, 11am PDT | Jonathan Nettler | @nettsj
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Although long associated with bottom-up and unsanctioned efforts to alter the urban environment, a confluence of factors have officials across the country incorporating the practices of tactical urbanism -- "that low-cost, low-commitment, incremental approach to city building" -- into their arsenal of improvement and revitalization tools.

As Doig notes, "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."

One reason for the popularity of these nimble projects is their focus on function and program, rather than simply designing an attractive (and expensive) place and hoping that people will use it.

According to Ethan Kent, vice president of the nonprofit Project for Public Spaces (PPS), "The ‘Lighter Quicker Cheaper' method gets people focused on the uses. 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," says Doig, "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."

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Published on Saturday, June 16, 2012 in Salon.com
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