Tactical Urbanism in DIY Memphis

Posted by: Leadership Memphis at  Saturday, October 11, 2014

This month, we are introducing a new feature on our blog.  Every month, we will focus on a topic of importance and relevance to the Memphis community.  We hope you will join to discuss why these issues matter to our city and how we can play a role in them.


In the past year, Memphis has received the most positive national media coverage that it has received in years.  There have been articles about bike lanes, Riverside Drive’s change to two lanes, new neighborhood programs, school reform, and tactical urbanism.  For this month, we’ll spotlight tactical urbanism for which Memphis has been recognized as a U.S. leader. 

We are grateful to Sarah Newstok and Tommy Pacello, whose names are synonymous with tactical urbanism in Memphis, for their contributions to this first post.  Sarah pioneered the approach in her work as a leader for Livable Memphis on the Broad Avenue revival.  As part of the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team, Tommy has applied the principles of tactical urbanism to initiatives to increase neighborhood vitality and to the much-praised Tennessee Brewery Untapped project.


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.










Here’s what the news media are saying about tactical urbanism in Memphis:

In Associated Press’s “big story,” Tactical urbanism: Citizen projects goes mainstream,” Memphis was spotlighted for its leadership in the emerging movement with quotes by both Sarah and Tommy. 

“The trend, which started out as a guerrilla movement but has increasingly gone mainstream across America and globally, can involve something as simple as the corrugated plastic speed limit signs going up around New York City or as large as a "pop-up 'hood" of rehabbed shipping containers to demonstrate the viability of a worn-out Salt Lake City neighborhood.

“The main criteria for an act of tactical urbanism are that it be simple, relatively inexpensive and quick, says urban planner Mike Lydon…

“Memphians have adopted tactical urbanism in many ways.On Main Street, a bocce ball court now beckons restaurant and bar patrons to regular tournaments. And hand-painted bicycle lanes are part of an effort to breathe life back into long-neglected Broad Avenue.

“The latest and largest example of tactical urbanism here is "Tennessee Brewery Untapped."Abandoned and decaying for a half century, the fortress-like brick building has become a home for pigeons and a canvas for graffiti artists. Tommy Pacello, a member of Mayor A.C. Wharton's innovation delivery team, says the owners have spent more than a half-million dollars in recent years just to protect the 124-year-old building from vandals.”

The peopleforbikes blog credited tactical urbanism with inspiring the Overton Broad Connector.  Architect magazine included Broad Avenue as a case study in its article, Newest Urbanism. The Cleveland Museum of Natural History wrote about Memphis on its blog, GreenCityBlueLake:

“Their premise now is that government can become an actor that supports swift action and projects of Tactical Urbanism. City as Tactical Urbanist was pitched to New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg who dug in to his deep pockets to fund five Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Teams around the country. As head of Memphis’ team, Tom Pacello and his staff of seven delivered a pop up block that became so popular it led to the city installing its first two-way cycle track.

“We couldn’t get the rents to pencil out to redevelop downtown spaces,” Pacello explains. “So, we got the city to agree to temporary use occupancy permits for six months so that these pop up retail shops could go in. We want to occupy the space and then come up with a plan to bring them up to code.”

“Thirty three businesses applied for the temporary retail space, he adds.“What started as a project that raised $20,000 has leveraged $15 million in new investment,” Pacello says.

City blogs across the country started holding up Memphis as a model tactical urbanism initiative, and at the Congress for New Urbanism, a panel discussion featured Memphis:

“Another example came from Memphis, where planners worked with entrepreneurs to create pop-up events for an abandoned brewery slated for demolition. The planners helped the entrepreneurs secure the needed permits from various departments while the entrepreneurs cut a deal with the building’s owner, cleaned up the space, and planned food truck and other events. “Tennessee Brewery Untapped” resulted in renewed interest from developers to buy and renovate the space to use the first floor for a brew pub or other use.”

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