By Sarah Newstok
Have you ever noticed something in our city and thought to yourself:
“I wish somebody would …(you fill in the blank).” You can see the potential to fix that broken thing, transform that graffitied wall into art, plant a garden here, or put a bench there. Chances are, nobody else is going to take action. But you can.
Tactical Urbanism is Do-It-Ourselves (DIO) city-making. With shrinking resources, the City of Memphis government just isn’t able to fix, improve, or beautify all of the places in our neighborhoods that need a little TLC. But neighbors are stepping up to the challenge. Memphian are on the front wave of a tactical urbanism revolution to DIO. It’s an exciting time to be a Memphian with a great idea.
It’s a Bootstrap City
In Memphis, tactical urbanism existed long before the term. Think of the V&E Greenline. In 1996, neighbors banded together to purchase an abandoned railroad. They transformed it to a forested walking and biking trail. Over the years, neighbors have added gardens, sculptures, benches, and recently a musical playspace in true DIO fashion.
In 2011, Livable Memphis partnered with the Broad Ave Arts Alliance to stage a tactical urbanism extravaganza – A New Face for An Old Broad. After decades of decline and the building of Sam Cooper Boulevard, Broad Avenue became a dead end street. The residents and businesses created a vision for the district. New Face ignited that vision. Broad Avenue is now a booming enterprise with more than $25 million in investment thus far. Neighbors, volunteers, and a few gallons of paint transformed the potential of the district into a real thriving place. As the proto-type for MEMFix, this approach is proving successful in neighborhoods across the city.
But tactical urbanism doesn’t need to be a full remake of the whole block. Last week, we took some of our members on a tactical urbanism tour around Memphis. We saw a mural in the Klondike/Smokey City neighborhood of North Memphis and the Nettleton Orchard Downtown. We walked through tire gardens and a skate park in Pigeon Roost. These were all projects where neighbors rolled up their sleeves and grabbed a paintbrush, shovel, or lawn mower to give some love and attention to their small corner of our city.
Make your idea a reality
Taking ownership of our neighborhoods is a powerful experience. Neighborhood revitalization begins with those moments of inspiration to undertake a small project to improve a specific place. It makes our neighborhoods livable – safe, vibrant, and beautiful. DIO builds community among neighbors, shows pride in our great places, and encourages responsibility for our quality of life. Ultimately DIO can be a catalyst for government to invest in our public spaces – because we are willing go out on a limb and invest ourselves.
Livable Memphis, partnering with In Our Back Yard wants to help you take action on that great idea. Like Kickstarter for civic projects, this is local crowd funding. We are working with neighbors like you to scale, crowd-fund, and implement that project to fix-up, beautify or improve your neighborhood.
To get you started, we’ve even developed a Memphis Guide to Getting Good Done. The guide contains info on site selection, permitting issues, and etiquette for navigating the unchartered territory of Doing-It-Ourselves.
From larger projects like MEMFix to small-scale projects like creating sunflower gardens in Orange Mound, Memphians are setting the trend for DIO projects around the country. Please join the movement to make our neighborhoods more livable.
By Tommy Pacello
“The lack of resources is no longer an excuse not to act. The idea that action should only be taken after all the answers and the resources have been found is a sure recipe for paralysis. The planning of a city is a process that allows for corrections; it is supremely arrogant to believe that planning can be done only after every possible variable has been controlled.” -- Jaime Lerner, Architect, urbanist, former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil
Neighborhoods, like cities, are incredibly complex places, each with its own unique qualities. Despite efforts to prove otherwise, there is no silver bullet to revitalizing a city. I think this is the point of Jamie Lerner’s quote above and is at the root of recent efforts in Memphis and other cities engaging in DIY efforts to improve their cities and neighborhoods.
A New Face for an Old Broad, Get RiverFit, ioby.org and #CreateMemphis efforts, Tennessee Brewery Untapped, MEMFix, the re-stripping of Riverside Drive, and many more projects in Memphis can all loosely be described as examples of Tactical Urbanism, which has been defined as a city and/or citizen-led approach to neighborhood building using short-term, low-cost, and scalable interventions intended to catalyze long-term change.
Tactical Urbanism is about quickly prototyping ideas before investing: “test and then invest” has become a common mantra of practitioners. It is similar to the “Build, Measure, Learn” innovation process that tech companies and innovation leaders use but applied to cities. An iterative learning process for neighbors and cities alike but with low-risk and the potential for high-return, this is especially useful in a time with limited resources.
Mayor Wharton said it best: “Too often, cities only look to big-budget projects to revitalize a neighborhood. There are simply not enough of those projects to go around. We want to encourage small, low-risk, community-driven improvements all across our city that can add up to larger, long-term change.”
In addition to its innovation process, Tactical Urbanism also has a strong community engagement component, and because of it, it can go a long way toward building social capital among residents and between residents and local government. Many residents are weary of the planning process that traditionally accompanies neighborhood plans. Long hours spent in conference rooms with post-it-notes and stickers often end in a plan that fails to propel implementation. As Mike Lydon, author of the Tactical Urbanism Manual states, projects such as A New Face for an Old Broad are a way for residents to “trade planning fatigue for physical fatigue.”
The revitalization of Broad Avenue did not happen with one large investment, but rather a series of small incremental investments from individuals and community members over time with much of the momentum being carried by Tactical Urbanism type projects. Tactical Urbanism is not THE answer for cities, but it is a powerful tool that neighborhoods and cities alike can use to build stronger communities from the bottom-up.