“…in order to do something big, to think globally and act globally, one starts with something small and one starts where it counts. Practice, then, is about making the ordinary special and the special more widely accessible — expanding the boundaries of understanding and possibility with vision and common sense.
~ Nabeel Hamdi
Over thirty years ago, our neighborhood came together behind a small, determined neighbor to create a National Historic District and established a local historic ordinance. The power of that experience — that organizing of “Anna’s friends” — led us to another effort to clean up and develop an adjacent four-block swath of creek-side land that had been used as a mine dump in the previous century, and just a dump since that time.
The city cooperated with us, having learned the hard way the hazards of crossing “Anna’s friends” in our historic preservation efforts. (Our grassroots neighborhood group was dubbed “Anna’s Friends” by a particularly grumpy city councilman who groaned during a difficult public meeting, “Oh lord, don’t do that, you’ll have Anna and her friends all over us!”) We first organized a volunteer trash clean-up for the four-acre parcel. Most of the debris was actually slash and yard waste from our neighborhood deposited in the undeveloped area over years. The site is adjacent to the local college football field, and a fraternity turned out to help gather tree stumps and limbs to fuel a promised bonfire for the homecoming game.
Working with the city planner, we designed and hand-built dirt trails across the property to provide comfortable access and encourage people to see the value of the site. At about the same time, the city started negotiating with the absentee landowner to purchase the property for a park. (The underhandedness of the owner will not be described here). With a combination of city, county open space and state lottery funds, the city was able to buy the property.
“Anna’s friends” continued to work with the city and found a trucking company that would voluntarily add excess dirt to the site and rework the surface. Following that, we held a tree planting event for the park, where neighbors bought trees through the city at a discount and planted them one weekend. The city contributed seeding with some native grasses and it started to feel like a real park – far from the used-water-heater-strewn property it had been.
A few years later, the city won grants to save some historic mountain cabins and a historic one-room schoolhouse and relocated them to the park, improving trails and adding split-rail fences and street-side sidewalks and curbs at the same time. The Clear Creek Historic Park was born!.
Lots of people made this happen. Certainly, our ringleader, Anna, was prominent, but dozens of others worked tirelessly and we had help from people at the city, the college, the local historic group and several businesses —not to mention the organizations themselves.
Recently, I was surprise to learn that what our neighborhood had done was classified as ‘tactical urbanism’ — an approach to city-making that features the following five characteristics:
• A deliberate, phased approach to instigating change;
• An offering of local ideas for local planning challenges;
• Short-term commitment and realistic expectations;
• Low-risks, with a possible high reward; and
• The development of social capital between citizens, and the building of organizational capacity between public/private institutions, non-profit/NGOs, and their constituents.
‘Tactical urbanism’ has come under scrutiny as a social force for locals to get things done to improve their own community that institutional mechanisms are not addressing. Documented projects include various actions to improve the safety, livability, and vitality of existing streets, and new ways to use or reuse vacant and under-utilized spaces, such as parking lots, property margins, etc. Many tactical urbanism projects focus on the greening of the community through plantings, street-scaping and other actions, where some address improving community spaces.
Basically, ‘tactical urbanism’ represents steps taken by residents to initiate improvements in their community instead of relying on the local government. Responsibility falls on individuals to create sustainable buildings, streets, neighborhoods and cities. ‘Guerilla urbanism’ is similar, but takes more strident action, often illegal, to get the attention of government. For example, a friend helped to surreptitiously paint crime-scene silhouettes in a dangerous intersection, creating a public uproar that resulted ultimately in the installation of cross-walks.
Architect Ellen Dunham-Jones believes that “the big design and development project of the next 50 years is going to be retrofitting suburbia.” She goes on, “I think the fact is the growing number of empty and under-performing, especially retail, sites throughout suburbia gives us actually a tremendous opportunity to take our least-sustainable landscapes right now and convert them into more sustainable places.” (Do you know any big- or small-box strip malls or parking lots that are becoming a blight?)
She notes “… demographers predict that through 2025, 75 to 85 percent of new households will not have kids in them. And the research … tells us there is going to be a huge demand — and we’re already seeing it — for more urban lifestyles within suburbia.” Along with the re-greening of the suburbs, she sees “ a burgeoning suburban farming movement — sort of victory gardens meets the Internet” requiring better planning, greening and development within the suburbs.
According to Tactical Urbanism 2, “the development of human settlements has always included, if not required incremental and self-directed action aimed towards increasing social capital, commercial opportunity, and urban livability. In many developing cities and countries, this remains the only way forward.”
Local efforts are required to achieve these ideas. As the people most impacted by the conditions of the suburbs and other urban areas, we are the ones to take steps to influence the decisions and decision-makers affecting our communities. Dunham-Jones emphasizes that we must “ join the protest and start demanding more sustainable suburban places — more sustainable places, period.”
Figure out what needs to be fixed, then go after it. Your local government may support you, or at least not oppose your efforts. After all, who wants to have to face “Anna’s friends”?