On Sunday July 20, for the first time ever, a stretch of downtown streets was closed to cars all morning and open to bikes—as well as Zumba dancing, yoga, roller skating and a rock climbing wall. Open Streets was a first for Pittsburgh but it won’t be the last.
A day later Mayor Bill Peduto emailed the organizers—Kim O’Dell, Eve Picker and Scott Bricker, who pushed the idea from the start, along with many other volunteers who worked to make it happen–requesting four more events in 2015.
“To me, it’s all about the movement,” says Kim O’Dell, director of awards at the Heinz Family Foundation. “Health and well-being. Vibrancy. It would be great if it all becomes second nature to feel safe on the streets and have the opportunity to enjoy them without cars several times throughout the year.”
This urban intervention, modeled after Ciclovia in Colombia and sparked by a Pittsburgh visit from Gil Peñalosa, is an example of tactical urbanism, a powerful, grass-roots movement to improve our urban space and our experiences and social connections within them.
There are plenty of other examples in Pittsburgh. A hand-drawn crosswalk forming a bridge between underused side streets. Café tables and chairs popping up on Strawberry Way to please the downtown lunch crowd. Local food dinners under the stars in alleys downtown. Yoga in Market Square on Sunday mornings.
One grassroots effort that garnered international attention is Knit the Bridge, a massive and well-organized yarnbombing of the Andy Warhol Bridge with handmade blankets and throws. The collage of color on the golden bridge thrilled visitors and drew thousands of them daily. (Proving that tactical urbanism can provide quite an economic boost as well: The Warhol Museum enjoyed record attendance that month.)
Not your typical urban plan
Urban environments are typically created by a cohort of urban planners, architects, governments and engaged citizens. Usually the process is long and drawn-out, involving significant political maneuvering, many levels of planning resources and large expenditures of capital.
Tactical urbanism, instead, focuses on small-scale changes at the building, street or block level. Many of these projects are low-cost and short-term, but can become permanent parts of the landscape.
According to Mike Lydon, principal at the Street Plans Collaborative and one of the leading advocates of the movement, New York City in particular has embraced tactical urbanism. One example is the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) Plaza Program, which works with non-profits to create neighborhood plazas from underused streets, with the goal of creating new public space animated with social life and interaction. Been to Broadway recently?
Paris, with its grand boulevards and fabulous public spaces, is normally not a city in need of urban interventions. But Paris can be desolate in July and August as many locals escape for their annual holiday. In 2002, Bertrand Delanoë, the newly elected mayor, created Paris-Plages or Paris Beaches, temporary beaches along the Seine, with chairs and umbrellas planted in the sand, the scene complete with food vendors and musical concerts. It’s been so popular with both residents and tourists that now there are three along the Seine.
And in Hoboken, New Jersey, a pier has been transformed into a beach—no sand, but there are tall red lifeguard chairs, bean bag and low-slung hammock chairs and plenty of music, a few TV screens and food trucks known for exceptional fare. On summer weekends and evenings, it’s the place to hang.
Many local Pittsburgh projects, in former empty lots and underutilized spaces, qualify as tactical urbanism. (And just think: Many more are possible.) Here are just a few:
Bayardstown Social Club might sound uppity but it’s anything but. Meant “to serve city dwellers looking for a unique outdoor space,” the club is essentially for those who lack backyards and the option to barbecue or host cookouts. It’s BYOB and BYOM (meat). While it’s members only, a seasonal membership is only $20. Set in the Strip, in a former empty lot beside the German Motor Werks on Penn Avenue near 31st Street, the site is hosted by local design and engineering company Deeplocal. The activated lot now sports overhead lights, picnic tables and seating, horseshoe pit, grills and fire pits on the 5,000 square foot space. Not to mention rest rooms. New to the club, now in its second year, is a tarp for cover and a new stage and bar area Yes, they supply entertainment, too.