By Kris Michell and Keith B. Jones.
A parking space. A small cement lot. A forgotten street corner. A perfectly planned plaza that sits empty.
Normally, these are spaces and places that people simply walk through, not to.
But increasingly the downtown community is taking a different approach, looking past what they see and asking, “What should it be? What could it be?”
In that parking space, let’s put a mini-park – if only for a day. In that small cement lot, let’s create a community gathering spot with cool seating and shade. On that overlooked corner, let’s have a pop-up concert. And in that plaza, let’s stretch ourselves with a yoga class.
At first blush, these ideas might seem gimmicky, offering up a good time with only fleeting benefits.
In fact, these events or “tactics” are part of a global trend rethinking how we use public spaces in ways that are “lighter, quicker, cheaper,” as urban planning leaders describe them. The goal is to ensure we are creating places designed by people so that they work for people, not just designing for design’s sake.
From London to Los Angeles, San Francisco to Stockholm, communities all over the world are using these tactics, and their toolboxes for change often contain nothing more than some cans of paint, a few lawn chairs and a little bit of ingenuity.
Whether we call it place-making or tactical urbanism, the tenets of these interventions are the same: Use inexpensive, temporary measures to start a community conversation about how best to use our public space. Remove the obstacles, whittle down the costs and try something new.
It’s a grand experiment with huge reward and little risk.
Maybe the mini-park in the parking space sits empty and unused. No problem; move it to a new location and see how it works. That new community gathering spot might be drawing more customers to the nearby coffee shop, boosting revenue. Great news; let’s make it permanent. Perhaps those yoga classes have inspired others. Now the plaza is filled with all types of activities – no longer a blank canvas.
Over the last year, these are exactly the kind of interventions the Downtown San Diego Partnership has held throughout our neighborhoods. Whether it’s a lunch-time party on C Street with cake and a pop-up concert or creating a movable mini-park, these all start dialogues about how we use our public space.
It can be as simple as putting up “What Do You Want Here?” signs or asking community members to attend a design brainstorming session on what to do with that dormant plaza. Residents can volunteer during the creation process, or just come hang out to experience the revamped spaces.
The point of tactical urbanism is simple: Foster a real-time experiment with public space so that people realize that a vacant lot doesn’t always have to a vacant lot, and that an empty swath of street should be seen as an opportunity, not a liability.
Plenty of people and groups in San Diego are taking these guerilla tactics to the street. Downtown alone, there’s Silo at Makers Quarter; Quartyard, a soon-to-be gathering spot with a beer garden, dog run and coffee cart on a vacant lot at the intersection of 12th and Market streets and the new Pocket Park in East Village, a reimagining of a tiny parking lot, made possible by lot owner HP Investors.
The common theme with all these efforts is embracing the possible and coupling it with a commitment to community involvement. Our tactics are part of a larger strategy to flip the top-down planning process into a grassroots effort to find out not just what looks good, but also what works well.
And figuring out how well these interventions work is key to the whole process. You can’t just throw down some AstroTurf and call it a day. We have to measure and analyze what works, what doesn’t and how to streamline the process. We need to make sure we’re removing obstacles, not creating them. With inexpensive experiments, you take ownership of your neighborhoods, one corner, one block, one parking space at a time.
Look at your community and imagine the possibilities. Then help make something happen.
Kris Michell is president and CEO of the Downtown San Diego Partnership, and Keith B. Jones is chairman of the Partnership and managing principal and partner at Ace Parking. Their commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.