How Pedestrian! Re-Imagining the Mobility Planning Process
In 2021, ‘outdoors’ is the name of the game. We often work outdoors, recreate outdoors, dine outdoors, and even live in indoor-outdoor spaces. We all love the great outdoors. The problem is, too many of us live in cities with not enough ‘outdoors.’ The pandemic has shown us, more than ever before, that we could all use more outdoor space.
We have enough outdoor space in our communities. The problem is, it’s not being used to support our mental health, physical health, and happiness. Instead, it’s being used to support a transportation mode that is the greatest mistake of the 20th century. In many American cities, roadways and parking facilities consume over 30 percent of the developed land area. This must change.
It is time that we radically re-think the way that we use public space in our communities—especially in the suburbs. We don’t have time to wait for planners, engineers, and policymakers at the national level to catch up to our need. Lives are at stake—lives lost from the pandemic, lives lost from pollution, and most of all—lives lost from traffic deaths. It’s time to reclaim our streets. It’s time to make “For the People, By the People,” a reality. It’s time to embrace tactical urbanism in our communities.
Tactical urbanism, which is the strategy of deploying community-originated, cheap, temporary changes to the built environment, has great potential. It can show everyone in our communities how much of an impact that small changes can have. A few parking stalls converted to a parklet or a street slowed down just a little bit can make a world of difference.
Critics will say that tactical urbanism is unsafe, guerrilla, and unauthorized. To that, I say, the existing conditions of our streets are already unsafe, destructive, and develop toxic communities. Every year, thousands of people are killed by cars, and thousands of people are killed by pollution. Now, thousands are dying of the pandemic as well.
To that, we must persuade our local leaders to end the “Willy the Groundskeeper” mentality. Perfectly manicured medians, six lane arterials, be gone. While solutions in the spirit of tactical urbanism may not be engineered to be permanent, and certainly not Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) compliant, they show everyone (including leaders) how radically different our communities can look and feel.
It’s time to end red asphalt in our neighborhoods and embrace the Community Design Challenge.
The Community Design Challenge is a novel idea for the planning practice. In the past, planners often develop neighborhood plans far into the future, with extreme vetting that often kills any plan to radically change our mobility options. This idea proposes that community members must be allowed to first organize, design, and strategize, without punishment. We must be allowed to show our planning leaders what our neighborhoods really could look like; long design processed be damned.
Such community challenges have occurred already to great success like the Designathon at the University of California San Diego. There, student leaders, with the blessing of campus partners, organized a design challenge to radically re-think the spaces on campus. The students participated in an innovative competition to design new spaces and places on campus. Topics in the past two years have included slow streets and placemaking. Student proposals were judged by a panel of expert judges, and winning submissions had the opportunity for their designs to be implemented. Most of those students were not, and are not, urban planning majors. Many of them had never even thought that the campus could look so different and so radically better.
The success of that award-winning challenge shows the power that Community Design Challenges can have. They can bring disconnected communities together. These Challenges should be organized by local community-based organizations, with the blessing of local leaders. Local leaders should take the opportunity to embrace the ideas of the community and bypass the archaic planning process where the removal of a single parking stall on the street could be a yearlong battle. Local leaders should take these ideas, consider their safety while remembering that the existing condition in our communities is extraordinarily unsafe, and implement them. Ideas only have to be trialed for a few days, weeks, or months. That is the spirit of tactical urbanism.
As such, Community Design Challenges hold tremendous power for reshaping the places where we live, work, learn, and play.
It’s time to tell Will the Groundskeeper to loosen up and radically change the way we go about designing our spaces and places.