Great Streets, Tactical Urbanism, and the Challenge of Flipping the Traditional Planning Process on its Head
When, in mid-May, the Mayor’s Office put out a call for proposals offering up to $20,000 in Great Streets Challenge Grants for applicants seeking to foster community via imaginative uses of public space, I’ll admit my heart sank.
Not because I have anything against imaginative uses of public space or money for community improvements.
But, with the due date for those proposals set for the end of last month (and winners to be announced next week), I did wonder if the Great Streets program was getting a wee bit ahead of itself.
At least in some parts of town.
Scroll through the Great Streets challenge grant application manual or listen to the recorded webinar on the application process, and you’ll see that the goals of “creat[ing] a program that empowers communities to propose innovative and creative projects for their own streets,” “finding a way to connect community leaders with funding and support for projects…,” and piloting “a participatory planning process that will offer new opportunities [between stakeholders and innovators] for collaboration early on in a project development process” are all front and center.
In essence, via Great Streets and the grant program, the city is testing the waters on institutionalizing tactical urbanism.
Inspired by unsanctioned, bottom-up, do-it-yourself interventions used by some communities to reclaim public space, tactical urbanism has been embraced by planners as a way to “flip the traditional planning process on its head” and engage communities by helping them visualize how interventions could reshape urban spaces. Plazas, parklets, and other low-risk temporary projects, the argument goes, offer residents the opportunity to experience their communities in new ways. They also offer civic leaders the tools with which to approach “neighborhood building and activation using short-term, low-cost, and scalable interventions and policies” that are potentially more inclusive, less intimidating, and better at facilitating discussions around the future of a neighborhood than more formal open houses and forums. Should residents’ experiences with a project prove positive, many feel, it can fuel momentum for more permanent efforts to transform the space that build on those interventions. Should the projects fail, they can be ripped out without much consequence and planners can return to the drawing board with lessons learned already in hand.
In this vein, it was reiterated several times in the challenge grants webinar, the funding is intended to offer communities the opportunity to test out some of those projects on the designated Great Streets, assess their viability, gather data on community buy-in, and make it easier for the city go after funding to make those projects (and/or their outgrowths) permanent down the line.
Even L.A. Department of Transportation head Seleta Reynolds recently touted the grant program, writing for Crosscut that it “cements the city’s faith in the community to drive its destiny” and can “leverage untapped resources in communities: the expertise of those who live, work, and play in them.”
Except that Great Streets has yet to meaningfully engage many of the very communities it has sited for transformation about the grant program or any plans for the future of their streets.