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For Public Areas, as for Redevelopment, a Shift to Tactical Approaches

San Francisco, CA

Over time there have been substantial changes to America's strategy for urban redevelopment. After World War II, and with the rise of modernism, it came primarily from the top down by cities that used eminent domain to demolish neighborhoods, in favor of subsidized complexes planned by lone developers. And while projects like this are still built—see Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards, or the convention centers gambled on by struggling municipalities—they've become increasingly detested due to their unprofitability and formulaic designs. What's arising in their place is an approach that emphasizes growth incrementally and from the bottom up, using smaller-scaled and more diverse architecture, and many small businesses rather than a few large ones. This has been used primarily in urban neighborhoods like historic warehouse districts, where development already exists, but where more is needed, to add vitality and foot traffic piece by piece.

This same "organic" approach has also been applied to public spaces, which is not to say that the benefits of larger ones are yet being overlooked. There are, for example, still expansive waterfront parks and cultural centers underway in cities like New York and Miami. But now they are being built alongside smaller beautification measures that, if not publicly subsidized, are at least becoming less taboo. These range from food-cart parks, to murals painted on buildings or crosswalks, to unused lots that are converted into "guerrilla" gardens. While these measures are often advocated by nearby residents, they are increasingly becoming associated with a larger design movement called "tactical urbanism."

This style of urbanism, documented by planner Mike Lydon, is a "phased approach to instigating change" based on analysis of the improvements needed in specific city areas. Because it is organized at neighborhood level, it provides "local solutions for local planning challenges" that often go unnoticed by stagnant city bureaucracies. In addition to the measures mentioned before, it can include building public benches from makeshift materials; creating "better blocks" through sidewalk landscaping; or occasionally closing streets to vehicles altogether. The common thread of these measures is not only that they are small and local, but are sensitive to changing needs, and thus are as likely to be temporary or incremental as they are permanent.

san francisco/shutterstockThe structures that brought prominence to tactical urbanism—and that are in the city most receptive to the movement—are the "parklets" dotted throughout San Francisco. They were invented when two friends, who are also founders of the design firm Rebar, discovered a legal loophole allowing alternative uses for the city's metered parking spaces. One September in 2005, on a day now known internationally as (Park)ing Day, they filled some of these spaces with small structures containing public seating. Throughout the day the seating was well-used, and the city, rather than cracking down on them, explored how it could build yet more. It started a program, Pavement to Parks, which temporarily plopped these parklets onto spaces where locals were likeliest to appreciate them. Many have since become permanent, and, defined by wood, chrome, shrubbery, or other materials, are considered iconic art pieces. Nearly three dozen have been built, and more are expected to go in areas strategic for revitalization. Some restaurants can also now place them atop their front parking spots to be used as café seating—a program that's being tried in other cities.

The neighborhood where these parklets, and other forms of tactical urbanism, are most prevalent is, not coincidentally, also where San Francisco's center of culture is gravitating—the Mission District. Once a working class area, it is now one of artists and trendsetters, having stolen this role from the Haight-Asbury. The neighborhood testifies not only to tactical urbanism's strenghts economically, but as an enhancer of built form, since today it showcases, along with parklets, other concoctions that pop up from seemingly nowhere: sidewalk mosaics, flower pots hanging from street lamps, and murals that blanket whole alleyways by the hundreds.

The rise of tactical urbanism in San Francisco shows why this city maintains a creative edge over others. One of the parklet's inventors, recounting years later his controversial transformation of several spaces, said that he had expected that day to get arrested and end up in court—a predictable outcome elsewhere in America. But instead he was embraced by a city that valued his ideas about how to make its public spaces, and its broader trend of growth, more colorful. Other American cities, looking to do the same, might turn their eyes to this movement out west, and the receptive mentality which inspires it.