About GenslerOnCities

What makes cities tick? GenslerOnCities explores the planning, design, and the potential futures of urban landscapes.

Search GenslerOn
Cities Topics
Connect with Us
« Gensler Models Oakland’s Explosive Growth | Main | The Integration of Architecture, Art and Public Space Westin Denver International Airport »

Small Interventions with Big Impact: Forging Relationships and Improving Cities through Tactical Urbanism

Renegade tactical urbanists are courting respectability, partnering with communities to infuse functional urban elements with touches of artistic flair. Image © Gensler

Plucky, pugnacious, and often thought provoking, tactical urbanism has historically been an affront to traditional city making. In its original form, it was not concerned with city making’s typical drivers; e.g., market demand, developer profit, grand aesthetic statements, etc. Instead, it addressed neglected concerns—often pertaining to safety, efficiency, and vibrancy—at the neighborhood level.

From urban gardens planted under the cover of night to ad hoc neighborhood wayfinding installed without city approval, tactical urbanism’s colorful manifestations have flourished and given rise to a global movement.

Despite its somewhat cheeky origins, that movement has ultimately proven beneficial. It has demonstrated its effectiveness as a way to spark civic engagement and address issues that city planning departments have been too slow or too skittish to tackle.

But tactical urbanism is evolving. It’s now shedding its unsanctioned, informal, and guerilla status and earning the establishment’s respect. Granted, these sanctioned practitioners aren’t sneaking around ninja-like and executing small-scale projects while the rest of the city sleeps, but they are adopting tactical urbanism’s spunky ethos and inexpensive, quick-to-implement model.

Interestingly, as formal and informal actors begin to mingle, they create opportunities for professional designers to become part of the tactical urbanism mix. If architecture, planning, and design firms such as ours are truly concerned with community enhancement, and not just bottom-line interests, then we must embrace this evolving form of city making; it has the potential to forge new alliances and yield new ways to enhance urban environments.

Raleigh's Cool Walkings initiative represents a shift in tactical urbanism towards more collaborative and inclusive initiatives. Image © Gensler

Take the Cool Walkings initiative in Raleigh, NC, for example. Spearheaded by the Glenwood South Neighborhood Collaborative, a grassroots organization from a fast-emerging section of downtown, Cool Walkings managed to bring together a diverse cross-section of actors, including the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, the Raleigh Arts Commission, Raleigh’s Public Works Department, local artists, and Gensler.

The initiative encouraged residents to submit original ideas for crosswalk designs at three Glenwood South intersections. Similar crosswalk redesign efforts have generated buzz in Baltimore, Seattle, Montreal, and other cities.

What distinguishes Cool Walkings is that it is one piece in a larger neighborhood improvement effort. Glenwood South is betting that the creation of publicly designed crosswalks that double as works of art will catalyze a chain reaction: By establishing a more engaging urban landscape, more pedestrian traffic will flow through the area. And with more pedestrian traffic, more retail will follow.

Gensler entered the mix thanks to the efforts of Ana Grzeck and Lindsey Barker, two members of the firm’s Raleigh office. Of more than 30 designs submitted, one created by Ana and Lindsey was among the three finalist chosen for implementation. Their creation—an abstraction of the Raleigh skyline—speaks to the city’s transformation from a small southern capital to a burgeoning metropolis. All three of the chosen crosswalk designs will remain in place until a scheduled repaving in 2017.

Given that the Raleigh office sits just a couple of blocks from one of the selected intersections, the Gensler team saw Cool Walkings as a chance to improve their local environment in a fun, non-traditional way. Thus, after being given the greenlight by the city, Ana and Lindsey, along with help from several colleagues in the Raleigh office, painted the Glenwood Avenue and Tucker Street crosswalk during a windy and cool October Sunday.

While the team labored with stencils, paint, and tape, they also conversed with local residents who had turned out to watch the proceedings. Such interactions point to tactical urbanism’s potential for sparking immediate and intimate connections within a community. When designers and communities no longer have to contend with the usual buffering agents—i.e., various intermediaries, lengthy project timelines, and massive construction efforts—the mystique of the designer evaporates and leaves behind a space for open dialogue.

Cool Walkings also helped Gensler initiate dialogues with the Downtown Raleigh Alliance and the Glenwood South Neighborhood Collaborative. In the case of the latter, we worked closely Donna Belt, a leading neighborhood voice who birthed the Cool Walkings idea and worked doggedly to make the project happen. Grassroots change makers like Donna and the Glenwood South Neighborhood Collaborative will become increasingly active shapers of the urban experience as municipal budgets tighten and cities are forced to be more selective about the allocation of resources and dollars. Thus, the community enhancement efforts of firms like Gensler will hinge on the strength of our relationships with such change makers. What these concerned citizens have always understood, and what design firms are just beginning to understand, is that transformative projects need not be dependent on deep pockets or monumental scale. They simply need to make people feel more connected to and inspired by the environment around them.

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.